Why Does Empathy Scare Us?

I grew up in a family where our “bad” emotions (jealousy, anger, rage) were not validated.  My parents weren’t unkind people, but true empathy was not their forte.  We were a highly emotional bunch of kids, and we were told, sometimes gently and sometimes not so gently, to brush it off, stop crying, don’t be so dramatic, smile and be nice.  I think they truly believed that was the best way to handle negative emotions. As a highly sensitive child who struggled with a lot of fears, bouts of melancholy, and anxious feelings, I never felt fully understood or free to express myself.

I became a parent and stumbled upon Janet Lansbury’s writings about respecting babies and children.  She suggests staying unruffled during the craziest of tantrums, and acknowledging and validating the ugliest of emotions.  This seemed radical to me, but I tried it. Instead of my go-to strategies of distraction or just shooing away the feelings (“You’re ok! No more tears!”), I really leaned into them.  I said the feelings aloud and made them even more real. “You are sad that I had another baby.  It makes you angry and makes you want to head butt your brother.  I understand you are sad and mad, but I will not let you hurt him.”

Empathy and validation absolutely works with my kids.  They simmer down quickly and seem to have good emotional intelligence for being so young. There are few grudges, little anger bubbling underneath the surface.  Best of all, we’re on the same team.  But it took a lot of getting used to for me.  In fact, such radical empathy felt scary.  To not contradict, correct or ignore negative emotions seems indulgent, too loose.  Shouldn’t we stand our ground as parents?  Shouldn’t we re-train a child’s emotions?  Isn’t that our job?  As a Christian, old testament verses are sometimes thrown around as proof that we need to spank, punish, and control.  Yikes.

When Sisi needed surgery for her broken elbow, she and I were both frustrated by the way the doctors are nurses distracted and redirected Sisi instead of listening to her fears and questions and answering them straight, even if she didn’t like the answers. It was then that I realized my radical empathy and straight talk was truly counter-cultural.

 

Here’s the thing. I think about how I like to be comforted.  Does it really help for someone to tell you your feelings are wrong, immature, and you just need to get over it?  To give you lectures or advice that you’re just not ready to hear? Do you like being ignored or banished when you are having your adult tantrums (and we all have them, right?) No.  We just need someone to say, “You sound really upset.  I’m so sorry you are having such a hard time.  I’m here for you.”  How healing are those words?  The older I get, the more tragedies I’ve experienced (suicide of my dad, miscarriage, family discord, etc.) the more I realize that’s ALL you can say most of the time.  There are just no other words. Please don’t try to rationalize or punish me in my sadness and grief because you will get nowhere.

I have a loved one who suffers from a severe mental illness.  During flare-ups, this person’s thoughts and emotions are in another galaxy.  In the past, I have tried to convince, contradict, correct, distract.  All the things we try with tantruming kids.  But like tantruming kids, my loved on is not in a frame of mind to hear my great reasons and arguments.  Rather than convince this person to get help and get back on meds, I pushed the person away even more.  I became someone not to be trusted.  How very sad.

The book I am not sick, I don’t need help! by Xavier Amador reminded me so much of Janet Lansbury’s strategy, but applied toward those struggling with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.  The book argues that poor insight into their own symptoms is a symptom of the mental illness itself.  This means that a schizophrenic or bipolar person is not just being irrational or stubborn when they say they are not sick, don’t need meds, or suggest something crazy like aliens are speaking to them through a blink 182 song on the radio (I’ve heard it.)  They truly believe this, and there’s no way to convince them otherwise.  It’s wasted breath, not to counter-productive.

Next time I get to talk to my loved one, and I hope to cross his/her path soon, I will stop saying “You need help.  You have to get back on your meds.  You are just paranoid. Your plan is not going to work.”  Instead I will say, “Tell me if I’m hearing you right.  You don’t want to take meds because they make you feel terrible and you don’t think  you need them.  You don’t want to stay in your apartment because you think someone is after you.  It must be scary to be in your position right now.  Nobody likes to feel followed.  I’m here for you.  I love you.”  And then I’ll wait- weeks, months maybe, until my loved one is ready to hear me and my wise suggestions for his/her life.   (Of course, if someone is a harm to himself or others, it’s important to step in and force help. But this should be the last resort.)

So radical empathy isn’t just for tantruming kids.  Or grieving adults.  Or schizophrenic loved ones.  It’s for every single person.  Let’s not be afraid of radical empathy.  It will make the world a kinder and more emotionally intelligent place.

5 Frugal Moves in the last Year

We didn’t even budget until last summer when we started saving up for our land.  We were so mindless about our spending because we didn’t really have a goal.  Now we have a HUGE goal- to build our own home and to give Joe a few years sabbatical to do so.  After analyzing our spending that first month, our eyeballs popped out and I may have cursed.  We needed to shave off thousands annually in order to invest for the future.  While we’ve cut down on the little things (no more coffee shops, acai bowls, eating out all the time, expensive musicals and concerts, etc.)  it’s the big changes that make the most difference.

Here are 5 frugal steps we took this past year, in order of impact on our bottom line.

  1. Fired my housecleaners.  This saved us almost 1800.00 this year.  Having maids come every three weeks was a lovely post-partum gift to myself, but it had to end.  I worked up the courage to fire them last summer by a) relaxing my standards of cleanliness, and b) finding better cleaning products that make cleaning an easier habit.  Now the house isn’t ever sparkling clean, but it doesn’t get filthy the way it did 2 or 3 weeks post-maid.  As an HSP, I am my own filth-o-meter and tackle messes when they bug me. But I only clean about 15-20 minutes a day, which is totally doable.  I’ve embraced the idea of “clean enough”.  As for products, I’m loving Norwex envirocloths and glass polishing clothes. They deep clean using just water. Water is free!!!  I also purchased the e-cloth microfiber mop.  Mopping my kitchen, bathrooms, and main traffic areas takes less than 10 minutes now, so I have no excuse but to do it once in a while.   Piggybacking on this one, we also fired the gardeners to save 600.00 this year.
  2. Played the miles card game.  We’re finally in a place financially to play the miles game without racking up debt at insane interest rates.  This means paying our balances in full each month via automatic payments.  After just 3 months, we’ve scored 700.00 in travel credit, and will add 1000.00 more credit in a month or two.  That’s enough to cover our 4 flights to Oregon this summer, plus rental car.  I wish I’d started racking up miles long ago.  We used the advice in this post to get started.

    Our Oregon trip last year should have been free!
  3. Joined a homeschool charter school.  In exchange for work samples, activity logs, and meetings with a teacher each month, we are given funds to pay for books, school supplies, lessons, classes, memberships to museums, zoos,  our local mission, and more.  I pretty much don’t buy Sisi anything out of pocket anymore.  It all comes from the charter school.

    Our charter school purchased our family membership to Mission San Juan Capistrano. We bring picnics and chill in the gardens regularly.
  4. Shop used clothes.  I started this for ethical reasons, but we save a bundle on clothing shopping used (almost exclusively, barring undergarments and my husband’s clothes.)  Here’s my shopping strategy: My favorite is thredup.com for myself and the kids.  I put anything that catches my eye into my cart.  Narrow it down to my favorite 10-15 items.  Have it all sent to me (free shipping!).  Try it on, mull over it for a few days and see if it fits in with my (fairly minimal) wardrobe.  Send back what I don’t want (usually 80% of the items!) for a refund.  I’m left with a few items in great condition that have already proven they stand up to washing and normal wear.   I haven’t set foot in a mall in a long time, which is crazy because that used to be one of my favorite places to take the kids!
  5. Took up hobbies like embroidery and map-making.  These hobbies provide me with cheap entertainment, are very therapeutic, and make cute handmade gifts for friends.  I’ve also vowed never to buy cards again.  Instead I’ve stocked up on blank white cards and envelopes so I can quickly watercolor a pretty design.

    My second project ever! A very colorful H for my friend Helen on her birthday. There are lots of little symbols tucked into the design (can you spy a surfboard, sun, lavender sprigs, boat, anchor, and horseshoe?) I love embroidering for friends because I can’t help but think about them and pray for them while I stitch. So it’s truly a labor of love, although a little wonky and imperfect for sure.

I have more frugal moves in the works- switching our cell plan to twigby, getting rid of the tv and netflix (!!!) and meal planning to cut the grocery bill down even further.  Food is by far our biggest expense.

Strawbale House Workshop in Arizona

Deciding to build your own strawbale home is a calling.  The first strawbale building I walked into really did call out to me.  Those absurdly thick walls covered in mud plaster, the delightfully lumpy edges and curvy planes said to me stay awhile, touch my surfaces; this space is for living, breathing, daydreaming.  I walked into that gift shop and knew I could never settle for dry wall, plywood and 2x4s again. I took Joe to see it and he also fell in love instantly. When he realized that plaster coated walls are termite resistant, fire resistant, do great in earthquakes, and do a darn good job of blocking out EMFs and wifi, he was completely sold and we began making a plan.

This Canelo Project workshop was our first step toward making our 5 year plan come true.  Bill and Athena Steen are experts in natural building.  Over many years of trial and error, they have developed a system that is so simple, elegant and doable. No fancy machines or expensive materials to build our “mock house” (a house we built and then tore down for learning purposes.)  Just straw, mud, sand, bamboo, wood, and cement blocks for the foundation. Many of the materials can come straight from your own land and last a surprisingly long time.

Housebuilding always seemed impossible to me- this big intimidating project just for men.  But this workshop stripped away the mystique and showed me that it’s possible for any man, women or child with determination to build a strawbale home.

So yay! Anyone can do this! The materials are quite forgiving and any mistake can usually be undone.  But you have to to be a special kind of human to commit yourself to such a project.  You’ve got to be a little crazy.  Putting up the bale walls was the easy  part- took a few hours tops. The hard part? Mixing up the trays and trays of mud plaster to the perfect tuna salad consistency. Applying the many coats with trowels in just the right way. Sculpting the walls, niches, windows and shelves.  These steps cannot be rushed.  They can take months and months.

Beautiful cob shelves.  The artsy finishing touches like these are what I’m looking forward to.
We destroyed a wall and used the bales and plaster to build a new wall. Next year’s class will tear this one down and create something new.

I mostly took this workshop as a trial run, having never built anything before. I had so many questions, mostly about myself.  Can I handle manual labor?  Do I enjoy the process of building something?  Can I live in a construction zone for a year or two?  Will this be worth it?

This workshop encouraged me and freaked me out at the same time.  I doubt I’ll enjoy living in the midst of half-done projects and construction mess for years. It might be a hard and frustrating season in our family’s life. Truth be told, I’m not really excited about the actual building process.  I prefer small handicrafts (like embroidery) that fit in my hands and can be completed in a few sittings.  Building something big scares me.  And I can only guess how many annoying mistakes we will probably make. This is scary for a perfectionistic HSP who likes stability and calm.

But I also know how much I will celebrate this home that our hands have sculpted, made from the clay of our very own land.  The prize will be well worth the struggle.  We will look back and laugh at our struggles and mistakes. Our kids will always remember building their own home.  They will know that they can do something so big.  Who knows what dreams it will inspire in them.

Joe and I posing in front of my favorite structure on the property- the strawbale playhouse! A kids’ dream and a doable project for anyone.

I want to thank Bill and Athena Steen for opening up their brains, home and hearts to us.  They have built a welcoming oasis out in the middle of the desert. I was expecting a strawbale bootcamp of sorts, and ended up having the most relaxing and fulfilling vacation.  Bill and Athena have added new layers of inspiration to this dream of ours. One day we hope to open up our brains, home and hearts to otheres in much the same way.