A Note on Empathy
“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility”
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
So when I posted this, I got a question on twitter from someone who snarkily wanted to know what this had to do with sex. Frankly, it has everything to do with relationships and therefore in my mind has more than plenty to do with sex. This is about simple relating. Replace the word “enemies” with “neighbors” or “lovers” or a form of human relationship and it still fits.
I’ve been somewhat preachy lately in my personal and professional life about the needless competitions we get into, usually around “my pain is worse than your pain” sorts of scenarios. You know the ones. You’re pouring your heart out about the latest drama or dilemma you have encountered in your life. Your friend seems like they are paying attention until suddenly they say, “Oh that’s nothing. Listen to what happened to me the other day”. Your heart is still bleeding and you’re still looking for some amount of comfort for the ass-hattery that has hit your life while your friend drones on and on about their latest problem. It hurts and it sucks.
I’ve done it. I completely admit it. I’ve even interrupted people while they were crying to do this. I’ve upped the ante on the emotional pain on the table so much that by the time we’re done, we both feel like the biggest losers in the world and are even worse off than before. No one was heard, no one has been comforted and we both feel resentful to our “narcissistic” friend who stole our pitiful squeak of thunder. I have been this shitty friend, been called self-absorbed, self-centered, narcissistic and desperate before and it really sucks. (and for the record, I believe “narcissistic” is tossed around a little too liberally, usually by the very people are exhibiting the exact same behavior and whining about others’ narcissism for not paying attention to their pain and suffering).
But you’ve done it too. It’s okay to admit it. It’s okay to say that you’ve been a giant ass about someone else’s pain and played the “no, look at how much more my life sucks” game. I could go into the psychological reasons why we do this to each other, but that would miss the point of what I’m aiming for here.
Being a good lover depends quite a bit on emotional intelligence. And a cornerstone of emotional intelligence is empathy. Empathy is described as “the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings (such as sadness or happiness) that are being experienced by another sapient or semi-sapient being.”. But in order to do that we have to know a bit about that person’s story. We have to understand a bit more about their journey…and we have to be interested enough to care to listen to it. And most of the time, I think we are. I think we do care. But in an effort and perhaps even an impatience to connect with that person, we interrupt or supersede with our own story and our own journey. We want acknowledgment too. We want recognition for our pain and suffering too.
The fact is, we’ve all suffered. We’ve all experienced pain. I may not have lost a sibling or parent, but I’ve been hurt. I know what those experiences did to me and how I am different because of them. And with a partner or a lover, my pain, particularly those I’ve experienced with former partners and lover (particularly D/s relationships) is kind of relevant. Knowing where I’ve come from is an important part of understanding me. It influences how I connect with others physically, emotionally, sexually, and what of myself I choose to reveal to them as time progresses. It is a major reason why I don’t really consider NSA (no-strings-attached) sex to be truly without connection, feeling or bonds. But that is another topic for another day.
Sharing ourselves with our partners is essential I believe, at least if you don’t want to surprise them with landmines and booby traps. It creates empathy and awareness for our personal journey. It also allows them to see more of us and therefore create a better bond that can shine all the brighter. It helps to melt away some of our own insecurities and overcome minor resentments before they become giant issues.
The problem is when we allow these personal narratives of our past to overtake and drown out the present. The person we are sharing with typically is not the person that caused us this harm and/or trauma in our lives. We’re sharing it as a warning sometimes. Other times are simply trying to get the acknowledgment and yes, sometimes pity that we didn’t originally get.
And that’s not to discourage that sharing at all, just be aware that in giving that story that we are not shifting the burden of our care and healing onto them. It still our story. That person didn’t create that trauma and no matter what level of their sympathy and empathy, they cannot fix it for us. We are still responsible for our own selves and our own lives and ultimately our own healing. My hope is that in sharing your story with others that the burden becomes easier and we open ourselves up the therapeutic magic that is possible and therefore we bring about our own healing by letting go of the pain and allowing ourselves to see a better life. And if everything goes well, we do the same for others. We listen, we empathize, we allow them the safety to share of themselves fully…
and sharing is quite sexy.