February 11, 2019 | 12 p.m.
You recently wrote to me: “Some situations have ended up being so cruel it’s hard to imagine it could come from you or two people who married each other.”
Implicit in this statement is a question.
How could two people who love each so much other treat each other so badly; how could someone I love and trusted fully end up doing things to me that are so cruel?
This is such important question and one I am constantly asking myself as well. It is important, because at the heart of this question is the feeling of loss – loss of a partner, loss of a plan for the future, loss of trust, and the loss of feeling like you can even understand people or yourself. I think, this question needs answering for both of us if we want to have fulfilling relationships in the future – if we someday want to have the future for ourselves that we planned on creating together.
I cannot answer this question for you, but I can show you a doorway through which you might be able to find the answers. It is important that you discover these answers for yourself. That doesn’t mean you have to do it alone, just that you have to come to them on your own terms. You cannot let me or anyone else hand you the answers and then you just “accept” or “trust” what you’ve been told. The answers have to be as much a part of you as everything else you believe.
So what is that doorway I am suggesting through which these answers can be found? Radical Empathy.
What is Radical Empathy?
Radical empathy is different than regular empathy. Regular empathy simply requires we be capable understanding what someone else is feeling. I think we both sometimes struggled with that in that regards to each other, so finding our way towards radical empathy is going to be difficult, especially now that we are not even communicating.
Radical empathy is different than regular empathy because it requires us to be able to see ourselves in someone else. It goes beyond understating another because it breaks down the wall that makes another person “an other” and allows us to see the things that they are feeling and the motives behind their actions as our own. Radical empathy demands that we not just understand someone else on a deeper level but that we come to a deeper understanding of ourselves.
When someone we love and trust does something to hurt us deeply, the first question that spring to mind is, “How could you do this to me?” The next question that may come is, “How could I have let this happen?” I think those two questions are something we are both struggling with. That is why we are both having trouble “wrapping [our heads] around this whirlwind” and why we are both in “shock and disbelief” over what has happened between us.
Empathy can give us understanding. Radical empathy can allow to forgive – fully and to heal – fully.
I am still on the journey to radical empathy and it is going to be a long process. I want to share with you the four steps I have discovered. They are tried and true and have been vetted by many people wiser than I. My hope is that you can benefit from what I have learned.
Step I – Goodbye justifications. Hello Guilt!
We want to see ourselves as good people. We are all the hero of our own story. That is why, when confronted with things I have done to hurt you it is so easy for me to tell myself I was just responding to something you did to hurt me. I was responding to a threat. I was responding to an insult. I was responding in pain. I was responding in fear. I was trying to protect myself. I was trying to get justice. This mindset allows me to keep feeling like I’m a good person because it allows me to justify the things I did that would on their face be considered wrong to do to someone. But there is another way, a better way.
I think we have both been doing this “justification” to ourselves – a lot. Because of this, we both kept hurting each other more and more and we kept justifying it to ourselves because we always saw ourselves as “the good guy” and therefore we were just responding to the hurt caused by the other person. The question of “Who started it?” becomes central and we both find ourselves tying ourselves up in knots trying to figure out and explain how we didn’t start it – because that would make us the bad person.
The problem with trying to figure out who started it is that question can never really be honestly answered. I don’t know who started it. You don’t know who started it. That’s the honest truth. But the good news is that who started it is completely irrelevant. That question never needs to be answered. The quest for the answer is a fool’s errand.
That is why the first step towards radical empathy is to stop justifying the things I did to hurt you because of something you did to me. I have to fully own what I have done and I have to recognize that no matter what you or anyone else does to me, I have a choice in how I respond and the choices I made were wrong, regardless of the reasons outside of myself. There is no justification for treating someone wrong. Ever. No matter what they did to “start it.”
This first step is not just about taking personal responsibility for my actions, but it is also about embracing the feeling of guilt. But want a minute. I said Radical Empathy is about coming to a place where you can heal from the things that were done to you. So, why focus on yourself first? We’ll get there in Step III.
Embracing guilt can be very painful, but it is also very dangerous. It is dangerous because it can easily turn into shame or be confused with shame. Shame is toxic. Shame places the focus on yourself and makes you feel like a “bad person.” Guilt places the focus on your actions and how they affected someone. Shame says, “I’m a bad guy.” Guilt says, “I’m a good guy that did a bad thing.” Shame is selfish. Guilt is selfless. Shame leads to depression, self-destructiveness, and violence. Guilt gives us hope, self-awareness, and the ability to make restitution.
Check out this clip starting at 14:29 below that explains this perfectly:
Shame and guilt are so easily confused, some people can’t tell the difference for their entire lives. That is why we are so resistant to someone trying to “make us feel guilty.” Whenever I used to feel like someone was trying to “guilt trip” me, what I was really resisting was someone making me feel shame. That is because I had never experienced guilt without it immediately turning into shame. I didn’t know the difference.
In order to cope with shame we often manifest it as denial. We can be so afraid of experiencing feeling bad about ourselves that we convince ourselves that we didn’t do anything wrong at all. This can make all the negative consequences of shame even worse: You can end up with even more depression, self-destructiveness, and violence. That is why it is so important to embrace guilt, because if you don’t, the only way you can mentally cope in the short term will be to embrace shame’s darker side, denial.
Denial prevents us from ever dealing with what happened. It buries the shame feelings and allows them to fester and boil over. Then, the destructive consequences of shame come out when we least expect it – and are targeted at people who don’t deserve it. But we have no idea why or where these self-destructive behaviors are coming from and it can be very difficult to even begin to know how to deal with them. That is why denial is so insidious.
Recently I haven’t had much of a problem with denial although I am beginning to suspect that denials in my past may have been affecting our relationship in ways I am still struggling to understand. I am in the process of uncovering past shames that I covered with denials and caused me to lash out at you in hurtful and unloving ways you didn’t deserve and neither one of us expected. Is is possible that the same has happened with you?
In the past several months I have repeatedly come to a place where I was owning everything. I was even making excuses for things you did and telling myself, “I made her do it. This is all my fault.” I became paralyzed with shame over the things that I did. I saw myself as some kind of monster, someone I didn’t even recognize. I felt dirty and irredeemable. It is not fun to be in that place, but I have sunk there many times as I wrestle with my own actions, actions I hate and despise.
Taking full responsibility for my actions without justifying them at all can easily make you fall into a dark hole that is just awful to fall into. If you don’t have a lot of practice, like myself, you will fall into that hole over and over again. But, if you want to develop radical empathy, you have to walk that path and you have to risk letting that happen. And you’re going to have to be prepared with a rope to climb out of that hole when this happens.
The way I find my way out of that hole is to forgive myself. And the way to forgive myself is to accept that God has forgiven me. It is to remember that God did not mess up when he created me. When he created me, he created a good man. I am God’s child and he loves me with the deepest love imaginable. And yet, in my selfishness and ingratitude, I rebelled against God and sinned against him – and even while I was in open rebellion cursing God with my very actions, God still loved me and forgave me. If God can do this for me then I must accept it in order to do it for myself. This is the only way out of that hole.
However, embracing guilt doesn’t heal the pain that motivated my bad behaviors. The pain of the things that were done to me are still there! I still feel empty. I still feel hurt. That is because things were done to me that were unfair, hurtful, and even at times abusive (I’m going to avoid the word cruel for right now, but you’ll understand why by the end of this). It is now time to move onto Step II.