Don't Be Upset; It's Upsetting Me The emotional toll of empathy BY: Troy Murphy |December 2014
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We reach limits, pushing our tolerations beyond the control of self-discipline and we explode. But rarely does the explosion resolve the upset. Rather it furthers the separation, and weakens trust. These trying moments demand empathy. Empathy bridges crevices and paves roads to connection. During difficult conversations, one of the partners must make this leap—a leap of faith, into the heart of the emotion; feel what the partner is trying to express through the flow of inadequate words. The precious moments of conflict, when empathetically approached, build the bridges of trust and safety—the foundations of intimacy. Empathy is a process of the heart. But also a cognitive process—mirror neurons absorb emotions and communicate those emotions to the body. We feel what the other person feels. Empathy creates appreciation for another’s experience. But empathy charges our soul with the discomforting emotions of a partner. If we stumble over our own discomforts, a partner’s emotional upsets become troublesome.
Our mind absorbs and then reflects outside emotion; the emotions reverberate through our own system. We experience their emotion. But if we struggle with emotions, the discomfort received from another is distasteful. We don’t like it. We quickly rush to resolve their discomfort even when the solution is not immediately available. When the resolutions fail, we become frustrated with their sadness, anger, guilt or whatever discomforting emotion we absorbed. The paradox of wanting to support but unwillingness to hold the uncomfortable emotions creates deeper fractures with the connection. Instead of comforting, we become irritable exasperating their need for support. Our actions demand, “don’t be upset.”
Emotions provide an opportunity for connection. Emotional expressions give insight into the other—their past and their present; fears and insecurities are exposed. With intimacy, a partner feels these expressions and connects, providing understanding that lays the foundation for security. Dismissing a partner’s discomforting emotions limits the richness of the relationship, driving a wedge between partners, making the emotional experience isolated and not understood.
As a child, important adults in the child’s life largely determine the environment. The child has limited control. The child’s reliance limits her options; when an environment is dangerous, abusive or unpredictable, the child must adapt. Often the child escapes anxiety through protective mechanisms of the mind. As adults, we have different options to effectively negotiate the difficult circumstance. We have measured control over our environments. We can plan, organize and change environments to create stability. Yet old habits of the mind stubbornly continue to haunt our new found freedoms. The escapes used in childhood automatically infiltrate experienced emotions in adulthood. The sensitive child becomes the sensitive adult, limited in the ability to process emotions, the adult still seeks escape. When the sensitive adult absorbs the emotions of the partner, because they lack experience in holding emotion, the feeling is painful, instead of comforting, they retreat to the familiar childhood escapes. The partner quickly learns discomforting emotions are unwelcomed and create deeper problems, feeling abandoned and alone, they internalize their experience, feeling shackled to lonely existence, hiding emotions so they don’t upset the child living inside of their partner.
"As adults, we have different options to effectively negotiate the difficult circumstance. We have measured control over our environments. We can plan, organize and change environments to create stability."
If this is your partner, have patience. If this is you, seek help and guidance to compassionately hold emotions.
Learning to productively process emotions will change your lives. The developed emotional skills allows for promising use of empathy to encourage stronger relationship bonds, reaching beyond the self to experience our partner’s emotions. When a partner is upset, we also feel upset but with emotional maturity, we smoothly process that upset and provide needed comfort.
Our partners may not have this skill yet. A partner unable to patiently hold emotions will seek escape—physical or emotional, like a frightened animal, they may aggressively strike back, our expressions of emotions creates personal vulnerability. Our Emotions are threatening to them. Being upset, upsets them.
By being patient and understanding (even when upset), we help partners productively experience our emotions. A screaming match only destroys. When they are upset, our acceptance of their emotion creates a safe base for their honest expression. The strenuous effort to solve the partner’s underlying problem often backfires. A more productive approach is compassionate presence, supporting the emotion and providing continued acceptance. Of course, there are limitations. When a partner’s emotions are destructive hurtful and dangerous, we must seek safety. Absorbing emotions should not include physical or emotional abuse.
But when two people, can safely co-exist than work, patience and love combine for growth. We increase our emotional maturity through mindfulness of the flow of emotions. New compassion absorbs and shares the discomforting emotions of a partner and we still stand in support. Our strength becomes their strength.
A loving partner accepts the difficulties encountered by a partner’s emotions. Trudging through other’s emotions may be awkward, encountering discomforts we previously avoided; but to intimately connect, we must travel down this path. If we dismiss our emotions, we will dismiss our partner’s emotions. We must be present instead of dismissing to build trust. During emotional moments, when we compassionately feel and hold a partner’s experience without judgment or correction, we exhibit love, showing a partner they are not alone. These are the precious moments of vulnerability where we provide safety. These moments of compassion tear down walls and build intimacy.