Friday, January 18, 2013

Honing empathy

Empathy. A word so many of us know and yet many fail to master on the first attempt. To be empathetic means you have to practice, being mindful of those around you and learning how to read body language and gestures. We're not naturally wired to be empathetic. Part of this has to do with survival and maintaining one's own sanity. Another part is that being empathetic means you have to take risks and open yourself up to be hurt or attacked. It's a hard thing to do, but something I believe is ultimately rewarding on so many levels. Empathy allows us to form relationships, to strengthen bonds. Empathy allows us to resolve arguments, seeing a situation from the other party's point of view and working towards a resolution. And, ultimately, I believe that empathy is important for our own happiness.

The past week has been one where I've been observing the world around me. This has to do with the fact that I refuse to analyze (= freak out) about symptoms or lack there of. But it also has to do with a number of posts from other bloggers and conversations with women from this community. Keiko's recent post left me with a heavy heart. The fact that she is struggling because she has fears with this pregnancy but is feeling like she has to separate her hard-won pregnancy from her experience with infertility resonated with me on so many levels. Other posts from two NICU moms were equally hard, as their pain and frustration is so very real, yet something I know I can only barely understand. Conversations with MissConceptions and HRF and a post from Sass have had me reflecting about post partum and thinking about the realities of a newborn (amazing, yet completely overwhelming). And then there's been the posts from those who are still trying to find their path to resolution. From Trisha, Tutti, Toni, and so many others as they unapologetically share their stories, their hopes and their fears. This recent post from Jo really drove home the fact that though infertility and loss are terrible, life-altering and painful things, none of us are cursed nor have we brought this upon ourselves. And then there's been the ongoing conversations with Mo.

A big part of me reading and reflecting on all of these posts and conversations has to do with how important all of these women (and so many more in this community) have become in my life. Yes, infertility brought me to finding them, but the connection I now feel is more than just infertility and loss. When they hurt, I hurt. When they're scared, I'm worried about them as well as holding my breath for reassuring/good news. And when they are attacked, I'm ready to take fingers.

But another thing (mainly with bloggers that I don't know well outside of their writing) is that I emphasize with them. With the NICU moms, I have no way to be able to fully understand the frustration, stress and sadness that they are feeling. But I can feel that frustration, stress and sadness in their words. And know that even if I can't fully understand, what they need most from me is not understanding, but someone to reach out and say "I'm sorry."

This past week, the Bitter Infertiles received their first negative comment. I won't go into specifics here (nor will I speak for Shelley or Mo) as this is something we will address and discuss more on the podcast. But I will speak from my end that I viewed the comment as written by someone who was coming from a place of great pain and frustration. That to me, it seemed that she was directing all of her anger about infertility at us because she felt is was the only safe thing to do.

Immediately after reading the comment, I thought of a recent email response Lori had sent me about responding to hatred and one-sidedness. The entire email is a gem and I will be posting what I've learned from Lori soon, but it was this part is filled with so much wisdom.
I say go beyond it to the whys. The people who are hateful and one-sided are stuck and you may never change their minds or their hearts, especially by returning fire. The only way to turn around a hateful person is to walk alongside her, in her shoes, so to speak, and respond to her from a place of empathy. Even then, you may get hatred back. But it wouldn't be about you, but about her. . . . Seek first to understand, then be understood. 
As tempting as it is to defend myself and my recent news (and all the pain, blood, depression, anger and bitterness that both Grey and I have experienced to date), I find that instead I'm pausing and reflecting on the author of the comment. Thinking about where she is coming from and what must be happening in her life that she would write this. That maybe her marriage is suffering from all the stress of this journey, in a similar way that mine did. That maybe she feels isolated and unable to talk about what she's living with. That maybe she doesn't see a road to resolution or is stuck regarding what steps to take. That maybe she has been told fertility treatments are the only option and she believes she can't afford them. That maybe there's been so much loss and pain, that she no longer has hope.

And I wonder, if she was given an outlet; an opportunity to share her story in a place where she felt safe, if those things would change.

I'm not naive. I learned long ago with Angie that some people are simply too broken for empathy to work. That they will suck you dry. But Angie is also an extreme case. And even if you get burned in the process, nothing is truly lost for trying to reach out.

I'm learning. Learning to be more empathetic and mindful of those around me. Learning how to be unapologetic (this is the hard part) about sensitive at the same time. And learning that just because someone continues to direct anger at me, that I don't need to attack them, only put distance and defend myself. That is by far the hardest thing.


  1. So well put, Cristy. Thank you for sharing, and for working hard to listen (read) and understand.

  2. I love your post. I also think you are such an amazing person filled with wonderful qualities.

    Thank you.

  3. Empathy is such a huge part of this community. As much as some if us have in common it's never enough to truly understand the emotions of others. There was a post that really reminded me of that this week too.

    Thanks got such thoughtful writing. Love!

  4. Love it. You are always so self-reflecting/aware. It's something I have been working on for years now. It makes for a more understanding frame of mind. I think each of us has something important to say and no matter where we are in this journey there is more to learn and understand. You are a good example of what we all should strive for - empathy. You are a good friend.

  5. Thanks for your post. Blogging has been so helpful for me personally. I just started less than a month ago, and have been overwhelmed by the response. Eve simple comments like "I am sorry you are going through this" really help. It is an awesome community. At the same time, joining this community has been a rollercoaster. I feel joy when people get good news, and sad for them when they don't. It is a good reminder to me that I am not alone. But IF suck so much, I truly wish I were the only person going through it, you know? Since that will never be the case, I am glad that we have all found each other for support. Even when I have nothing truly helpful to say, I still like to comment to people that I am sorry for their struggles. I hope that bit of support (empathy) helps!

  6. I couldn't agree with you more that empathy is somethiing that needs to be practiced. Unfortunately, this community gives us all plenty of opportunities to do that. But that's why it exists. So that none of us has to go through this alone.

  7. Heh. I had to take my own medicine this week.

    You are a wise woman. A compassionate and empathetic woman. A clear thinker and writer. I love the way you brought so many threads together around a theme. Made me think :-)

  8. Your last sentence really hit home with me, and was one I needed to read... I think we could all learn how to be empathetic, and as Lori said - to seek first to understand, then be understood. It seems like such a difficult goal sometimes, especially when feeling judged or misunderstood, but still... a worthy one. Thank you for this Cristy.

  9. Thank you for this post. You are such an amazing support to all of us.

  10. "infertility brought me to finding them, but the connection I now feel is more than just infertility and loss". You hit the nail on the head with this one Cristy. I often struggle to find an accurate way to explain to my IRL friends/family what this community is. It's the bonds that we share in this process that then lead to FULL friendships that extend beyond just infertility. It is these bonds that forge something entirely unique and special.

    Though I've always been empathetic to those around me, I've only learned the extent to how deep it can go in the last few years. It's multi-layered and when I started here, I only knew the first layer. It is from women like you, that have learned the true meaning of empathy. To receive it, is to understand it. And so the tendrils reach...


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