The Gift of Empathy
Compassion and Codependency
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | November 2016 (Edited 2018)
The ache of co-dependency and the fear of emotions all hinge on our capacity to process discomforting emotions. True connections share emotions. Each partner willing to receive the other partner's experience and patiently work through the emotion together.
Nature gifted us the ability to share emotions. Through multiple regions of our brain, we observe others, examine facial expressions, sounds and accompanying environments. We gather the data and make predictions about their experience, exciting our own neural networks, often firing neurons in concert with theirs—we share emotions. We can be sad when we observe the sadness of a lover, resonating with their experience. We can feel the pangs of grief with a friend, even though the loss is not our own. Utilizing this incredible gift creates a connection. Biologically programmed with the hardware to share emotion, we can attune to others (see emotional attunement). Like all evolved system, there are a few bugs in the system, glitches that potentially damage attachment and spike feelings with intoxicants that blur our visions and unsteady our gait.
Sharing emotions often drive us towards connection but for some, the emotionally aloof, the powerful emotions overwhelm. Childhood introduces the youngsters to feelings--the pangs of want, desire and hurt. Children experience emotion starting on the bright stage of their homes. Parents model feelings, give definition, and teach reaction. Many parents gently expose their children to the rich world of feeling, delighting in the aliveness while other parents crush a child’s developing sensitivities, confusing the babe and bewildering the juvenile with adult chaos. Love is mixed with tensions, kindness blended with requirements, and hate covered with smiles.
The inherited hardware to recognize emotion is programed with confusion. The blessed ability to read and respond to emotion is blunted with conflicting information. Many of these children squander in adult relationships; emotionally undeveloped, they blindly react to others’ emotions, hoping for connection, but awkwardly untrained to artfully respond to the complexities of connection.
To effectively connect with the emotions of others, we first must have a grasp on the emotions bubbling within ourselves. If we can comfortably work through our own emotions, soothing, accepting, and directing, we then can share emotions with others. When personal emotions overwhelm, then received emotions from others also bewilder. We see the discomfort and seek escape. Momentary feelings of compassion quickly dissipate when we have little room for emotional upheaval. We can’t offer connectedness if all we know is detachment.
"If we can comfortably work through our own emotions, soothing, accepting, and directing, we then can share emotions with others. When personal emotions overwhelm, then received emotions from others also bewilder."
In compassion, we respond with warmth and strength. We comfort those that hurt. We wrap them in our arms, sharing the experience. We feel their sadness and provide support during grief. This is difficult for most, lacking emotional maturity, the shared emotion intrudes on well-being. After providing superficial support, the continued emotion frustrates. The emotionally shallow seek escape after a few words of concern fail to mollify the disrupting emotion. We poke the wound with our impatience. “You choose to be sad,” we quickly condemn. We condemn, not to help, but to soothe our own discomfort. We need escape.
In co-dependency, the response is different. The co-dependent take responsibility for the emotion. They feel driven to resolve and cure the sufferer. They feel guilty when others suffer. They place their liveliness on hold and seek to answer the unanswerable. They fear sorrow or anger will deepen the distance between them and their partner. The co-dependent seeks happiness by forcing important others to be happy. They get sucked into the dance of everybody’s drama, smiling, solving, and rescuing.
The line between compassionate empathy and demanding codependency is complex. Both involve connections and boundaries. Our active minds constantly strain to define the line between ourselves and others. We don’t neatly fall into one camp or the others. We typically partake in blessings and curses from both reactions to emotions. Healthy relationships require mindful investigation, slowly moving back and forth to find a comfortable and healthy line, learning how to comfortably share an emotion without being suckered into responsibility for it.
The narcissist moves the line refusing to feel the emotions at all—counter-dependency. He (or she) is completely indifferent to other’s feelings, as long as they serve the narcissist’s interest. The sadness of a partner becomes an exploitable opportunity for the pathological narcissist. He (or she) gladly provokes guilt, anger and self-hatred when it serves his needs.
The labyrinth of connection will always stymie those unfamiliar with the complexities. Poverty of connection in childhood is not a death sentence. We can develop skills of closeness in adulthood with help, surrounding ourselves with emotionally intelligent friends and models. Perhaps this takes time, not an overnight miracle, but with patience, we grow, learning to process our emotions and the emotions of others with kindness. This gift we have been given through evolution can be coupled with an equally important gift of learning. We, as we emotionally mature, can turn towards our children, giving them a blessing, we were deprived of in our youth.
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