Step II – Know the what. Forget the why.
In the first step, we had to completely divorce our actions from the thing that caused us to want to take those actions and deal with them completely on their own. In the second step we are going to have to do something similar with the person who hurt us. We are going to have to somehow divorce what they did to hurt us from our beliefs about why they did it. This is freaking hard as hell; for many people this kind of perspective shift nearly impossible and this is where they can easily get stuck.
I have described the pain of what I’ve been through to several people and I almost always get the same response. It is mostly unhelpful, but there is a small nugget of helpfulness hidden in there. I don’t even have to go into detail about the things you have done; I just talk about how I am feeling as a result.
The first thing people say is, “If you are feeling this way, that means that this awful thing, and this awful thing and that awful thing has happened to you.” I think about it and all the things I’m mad at you about that I feel like you did and I’m thinking, “They’re right! All those awful things have happened to me!”
They are labeling my symptoms and assuming the cause – and for the most part, assuming correctly. Sort of. They are correct in their assumptions about what I have experienced. But this only represents my own personal subjective experience of your actions. It does not represent what you thought you were doing – or why you were doing what you did. To continue making assumptions about your behaviors and what motivated them is… Well…
This is how we walk blindly right into that trap:
The next thing some people might start to do is label you. This is extremely unhelpful and actually quite dangerous. They may say, “If this, this, and that happened to you then the person who did this to you is this kind of person.” Usually “this kind of person” is some kind of evil irredeemable monster. “Everything bad they did is because deep down inside that is who this person is and everything good they did was just a lie – it was just a selfish manipulation to string you along and get what they wanted.”
Now that they think they have correctly identified the cause, they prescribe the medicine.
“Run away!” They might say, “Run away fast and hard and never look back. And thank you lucky stars you got out while you could.” No one has necessarily said this to me – or any of the above quotes. I am massively simplifying some very long and in depth conversations. The quotes are my way of simplifying and giving you the general gist of what I got from those conversations.
When I buy into this way of thinking (and trust me I have often bought into this hook, line, and sinker) it feels really good. As humans we hate ambiguity and mystery so we are desperate to label people, put them in a box, and tie a little bow on it. This is how we make sense of a chaotic world. It is how we actively avoid confusion. We hate confusion. We love explanations. It doesn’t matter if the explanation is right or wrong, and honestly we have no idea if it is (spoiler alert – it usually is wrong) – it feels so good to have it, we assume it must be right.
I could stop there. Many people do. It is a quick and easy solution. But it doesn’t lead to radical empathy. In my past I have actually stopped there many times. But that doesn’t heal the pain. That buries it. Unfortunately, buried pain actually causes us to spend our life repeating the same patterns over and over. This is explained in Step III. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I am going to have to be brutally honest with myself if I want to achieve radical empathy.
If I only focus on all the bad behaviors, then I’m going to guess you’re heart is bad and all your good behaviors were insincere. This is not honesty. Half truths are lies.
If I only focus on all the good behaviors, then I’m going to guess you’re heart is good and all your bad behaviors were a fluke. This is also not honesty. It is a half-truth, and we know what half-truths are, don’t we?
When I am brutally honest with myself I start to think about all the good things you did. I start to think about all your good qualities. I start to remember how genuine and loving you are. That doesn’t fit with the label I just put on you. Now, that good feeling I had starts to wear off and when it does I am actually left with more confusion.
Here’s the problem: No one knows you. The people I talk to don’t know you. Even if they know you, they don’t know know you. I don’t even know you. I like to think I do, but if I’m honest with myself, I really don’t. I can’t. I can’t look inside your heart. I can’t really know who you are. I can’t know your subjective experiences. I don’t know how your past – and how you’ve dealt with it – is bubbling up and informing how you behave towards me. I can only guess who you are by how you behave.
And the people I talk to aren’t really responding to my pain. They can’t. They can empathize with my pain, but they can only respond to their pain (that is the limit and problem with regular empathy). And where did their pain come from? Someone else in their life. Someone who isn’t you. And past experiences they had that made them feel the same way I’m feeling. And 99% of the time they probably didn’t take the path towards radical empathy. If I follow them, they are going to lead me astray.
And I’m talking about good people here! I’m talking about people I respect, people who seem like they have it all together and figured out, people who have experienced so much more life than I have and seem so much wiser than I am. This is even something that many therapists do. I have witnessed it firsthand – recently, in regards to you. If you have a therapist who is doing this, you have a serious problem on your hands.
The first part of this video perfectly explains the pitfalls of labeling people, why we all do it, and why it feels like it helping you but is actually hurting you:
Remember how I said that there is a small nugget of hidden helpfulness hidden in this approach? Here’s that nugget: What happened to you and how you are feeling about it is real and it is pretty universal – many people can identify with it, so you have good company. Your experience was real. But that’s it. You have to stop there. Looking outside yourself and into someone else to explain why you experienced what you did is not helpful.
That is the only helpful takeaway. Everything else is probably bullshit: All your assumptions about what kind of person hurt you and why they hurt you are probably wrong. That is why, if you want to discover radical empathy you’re going to have to completely divorce what you experienced from the person who caused that experience.
Again, this is the hardest step. This is where so many people fail. They never break out of the cycle. This step is going to take a lot of very hard work. But it is the only way to break the cycle starting in Step III.