The EMPATHY PROCESS (A healing technique) ™
Empathy was not part of my early life experience. I grew up in a house of horrors, one where everyone was too intensely consumed with their individual survival to see or empathize with another. There was no space to attune to each other’s internal experience, no interest in holding the space for each other’s feelings. We were blind to each other’s inner landscape, strangers sharing the same physical space, simply trying to stay alive.
In my late twenties, something shifted. I became more conscious of empathy as both a healing tool, and a way of being in the world. It served me in my efforts to stop personalizing the behaviors of others. If I could get inside their journey, I could see where they were coming from and stop making it about me. And it served me in my efforts to be understood by others. After an early life riddled with hateful judgments, I relished the feeling that someone was taking in my experience with an open and receptive heart. No I wasn’t a devil. I was human, after all. And being accepted and received in my humanness was remarkably transformative.
Recently, I took empathy to the next level. As a result of an unprecedented combination of misinterpreted communications, personal losses and triggers, my dearest friend and I fell into a dark, disconnected place in 2013. We stopped talking altogether until making the mutual decision to attempt a healing and re-connection in the autumn of 2014. When we first got back together, it was clear that there were many unresolved feelings and assumptions in the field between us. Talking was helpful, but it didn’t seem to cut to the heart of the matter. We couldn’t see one another, nor could we stop projecting our assumptions onto each other. We couldn’t heal the rifts.
We needed something else- something more than a back and forth dialogue where each person tries to convince the other of their perspective. We needed a technique that would allow us to get out of our own stuff and deeply see and hear one another. We needed a healing modality. Building on a technique I employed when I was doing therapeutic work around my family dynamics, I crafted a process for us to work with. I now call it, quite simply, The Empathy Process. After two sessions employing this technique, we were able to drop considerable amounts of emotional armor, and see one another’s actions independent of our own own projections and assumptions. We were able to heal much of the pain that existed in the field between us, and remember why we had been best friends for over twenty years. This is not to say that every element of the connection was worked through, but it is to say that, this process has worked wonders.
Simply put, this simple technique can transform relationship. And I do not believe that it has any limit with respect to its application. It can be utilized with friends, lovers, family members, employees and employers/fellow employees, conflicting nations and agendas, even courtrooms. It can be practiced in diads and groups. It can be woven into our school system, so that children have an experience of empathy at an early age, particularly helpful for those who are not having that experience in their family environment. In a world where conflict is often sourced in our inability to truly walk in the other’s shoes, The empathy process can pierce through the veils of relational blindness and change our world. It can be utilized over and over in the most challenging situations, until the expressor feels truly empathized with. And, it can also be of tremendous benefit in situations where there has been no conflict. In a world where so many of us never feel seen or attuned to, this process can transform lives even when it is experienced between strangers. In fact, one has to wonder if the concept of unity consciousness will ever land in real time if we do not develop a protocol for empathizing with seeming strangers. If we can practice empathic response with everyone (“Take me inside of what that feels like for you”), we will surely pierce the veil of our seeming differences and remember that we are all here, together- walking hand in hand down the trailways of transformation. Just when you thought you were all alone with your challenges, you do an Empathy Process and realize that you aren’t.
For the purposes of this process, I define empathy as the experience of walking in another’s shoes. That is, the ability to experience what the other person is or was experiencing at a particular moment in time. It’s a getting inside their journey so that you can feel some or all of what they went through. It is not simply being compassionate, not simply feeling for them. It is a feeling into their experience, as though it is or was happening to you.
The Empathic Expressor (EE) is the individual who is sharing their experience. The Empathic Receiver (ER) is the individual who is empathically receiving their transmission. *Note- although the following description primarily applies to a Diad (a one-on-one sharing), this process can also be done in larger setting- with one EE and more than one ER. If so, modify the instructions accordingly.
The Empathy Process is as follows:
The process begins with a vow from the ER to the EE. The wording can be modified, depending on the context, and with particular regard for what the EE needs to hear before they will feel comfortable fully sharing their experience. Given how poorly many of our sharings have been received in this world, it is especially important that the EE knows that the ER will hold the space for their sharing with kindness, presence and an assurance of confidentiality. It is a very vulnerable thing to share our experience with others. We don’t want people to be re-traumatized and brought back to their memories of feeling unseen and unheard.
‘As one you have blessed with the opportunity to receive your sharing, I promise that I will hold the space with as much kindness, genuineness and openness as I can. This process is not about me. It is about my receiving your experience. It is about my empathizing and walking in your shoes. I will do my best to remove any biases, hard feelings and projections from the field so that I can be fully present for your experience. I will not attempt to re-frame your experience, nor will I judge you for it. And I promise you that I will not share any of the details of your sharing with others, without your express permission. This is your process. It is safe here.’
If you are the EE, the ER either sits in front of you, or lays down comfortably, and you do the same, getting yourself in the state you need to in order to transmit your experience most authentically. Be sure the environment itself is appropriately soothing and comforting, if that will help. You decide if you want the ER to have their eyes opened (and to look at you, or to look away), or to have their eyes closed. It depends on how you want to be received. You also decide if you want your own eyes opened or closed. Also, you direct the ER as to whether you want them to move and express as you do- that is, to mirror reflect your experience- or simply to sit/lay in stillness and silence while you move into the experience. In addition, there can be a pre-determined time limit on each sharing, if that serves you (if so, it may serve you to set an alarm). Or, it can be left open. Either way, it is best to express that before you begin.
Then you begin to share your felt experience with the ER. That is, you speak/sound/hearticulate/emote whatever it is you want the ER to empathize with (memories, events, experiences, perspectives). You begin to share, in as vivid a detail as you can, using words, sounds, tears, anger, movement to fully embody and express yourself. Whatever is required. It can be as articulate or inarticulate as necessary. It can be confined to a specific event/memory, or more (*Note- Be careful not to flood the ER with too many events/memories at a time. Better to focus on one or a small number in each Empathy Process, so you can feel fully received). The idea is that the ER is there to both witness your experience, but also to feel it fully. To empathize. To share in. TO EMBODY. To really feel into what you have been through so you know you have been heard and felt and connected with by a receptive human. The important thing is that you stay in the process of expression for as long as you can, going as deeply as you can, so that you feel fully expressed. When you feel complete, you have a number of choices. You can ask them to leave the space, you can ask them to hug you if that’s appropriate, you can ask them to come to silence with you, or you can ask them to reflect back in words and/or movements what you shared. If you simply need to know someone witnessed you, then you may not need that, but if you need the feeling that someone really FELT and attuned to your experience, then a deeper reflection can be helpful. Many of us go through our whole lives never feeling heard and supported, so simply hearing another reflect back our experience can help to create new pathways of possibility around authentic support and attunement. If your Empathy Process originates in a conflict between you and another, you can follow the process with a dialogue about what you went through together, now through a more broadened and empathic lens.