Face to face with a person in need, I often tend to immediately react to that need. This reactivity of mine has also been pointed out to me a few times “That someone needs your help does not necessarily mean you need to do it right away” and “Hey, just because I mentioned what needs to be done, it is not necessarily YOU who need to do it. I am also here, you know…”
What is this urgent need in me to FIX, to SOLVE?
A friend of mine called it “Identification”, identifying with the other and thinking it is my responsibility to solve the other person’s dilemma. I have started to think of it as codependency.
A while ago, I attended a conference about empathy. The speaker indicated how fixing or solving is to protect the other person from his/her own development also quoting a saying: “No true transformation without suffering”. In a way, fixing the situation for the other or telling him/her what to do is, if we bring matters to a head, to try to steal away the self-power and initiative from the other. We all have our very personal way to walk. To put one self in the shoes of the other is NOT to be understood literally, it is only meant as a way for our imagination, helping us having an empathic understanding of the other person’s situation.
So what is empathy? Well, I know what it is not: When identifying, I lose the border between myself and the other. My lack of integrity makes me vulnerable and leads me down into the other person’s pain. I start to feel the same feeling.
In a booklet, Getting past the pain between us, Marshall Rosenberg compares empathy to surfing as it is a question of following the other person’s energy, like if the state of mind of the person being listened to, is a wave to surf on.
If I take this picture of empathy being like surfing a bit further on, surfing is about following the wave ON the board, not diving into the water. The surfing board can thus be a picture for my integrity, keeping myself intact instead of diving into identifying.
One thing Marshall Rosenberg says, that I find very challenging, is that empathy requires “learning how to enjoy another person’s pain”.
Well, maybe it is the fact of us not identifying and taking the responsibility for the other person’s case, the fact of instead just BEING THERE for the other, to know that I can be a space for the other to rest in for a while, a support, like a mirror of warm attention to the other person to look in where he or she can find clarity by being heard and rephrased in order to find his/her own solutions.
Rephrasing is something that has not come natural for me until now. As I am discovering it, using it more and more, I begin to believe that it helps me to “stay on the surfboard”, i.e. helping me staying intact by reflecting back instead of identifying.
One of the most challenging things for me to hear is when someone expresses a feeling of hopelessness and I’m not sure of having ever had the strength to rephrase back this feeling. To put these very words into my own mouth has seemed to me like I would surrender to the feeling of hopelessness. Yet, surrender is exactly what I have been doing when my conditioned reflex has made me try to solve the situation for the other. Identifying and taking responsibility in codependency is an obvious way to drown myself in the other persons feeling.
Is this maybe my turning point?
What if reflecting back the other persons feeling with my own words is not only helping him or her to see in the mirror of warm attention but also the way for me to abandon codependency. And a way to start living empathy.
 Rosenberg, 2005, Getting past the pain between us, p 8
 Rosenberg, 2005, Getting past the pain between us, p 9