One of the fundamental shifts and changes I have made over the last 12 months has to do with my understanding of empathy. It used to be the case that if someone came to me and expressed their anxiety, frustration, fear, that I would respond by validating the hardship and the challenge, if only for a moment. The purpose of this was not contrived or forced, but rather a natural expression of care- I wanted whoever was in front of me to feel supported and understood.
These days, I’m much more deliberate and discerning about how I offer my support. Many of us have cultivated survival strategies that have sought to get our needs met in dysfunctional ways. If anxiety, for example, is part of your survival strategy, part of the way you are getting your needs met, I do little to serve you by reinforcing that.
I can listen. I can appreciate what you are saying. I can empathise by appreciating this is a challenging moment for you (which is separate to understanding the situation to be intrinsically challenging) without reinforcing the story and the pattern by investing too much in the behavior itself.
When a behavior is linked to a survival pattern, we make little progress by focusing specifically on that behavior. Part of this involves asking yourself, what part of this behavior serves me? How am I seeking to get my needs met in ways that perhaps aren’t healthy for me? What is my identity if I am asked to let this go?
All big questions. And ones you have to be ready to ask.