I teach listening and value empathy. A lot. As Carl Rogers says, “[Empathy] just feels damn good.” (If you need a primer on empathy, here is a video that makes it fun and easy to learn about.)
I want every human to experience as much good listening and empathy as possible because it is the cheapest, fastest and most meaningful way to heal that which is broken in our hearts, in our communities and in our world.
At the exact same time I value listening and empathizing, I also make a ton of mistakes practicing them in my own life. Sometimes I really beat up on myself for the mistakes I make. But then I remember the old adage “We teach what we most need to learn.”
In my case it is also, “I teach what I most long for.”
I had a recent screw up with empathy. I lost a friend in the process. This friend of mine admittedly is not a good listener and she inadvertently hurts my feelings. I have an inherent need to feel heard with empathy in my close friendships–and I was not able to accept that empathy is not her jam.
Rather than accept and grieve that this friendship would not meet core needs of mine, I acted like an entitled jerk.
I had two better options. I could have accepted the light friendship we had or let it drift off.
Instead, I wanted it my way.
Here is where the rubber really meets the road with empathy. Now that I have this big fat “F” on my empathy report card with this friend, I have to have empathy for the hurt part of me that screwed up in the first place. Part of my work (and maybe yours) is to remember, I am ernest, trustworthy and lovable, bad grades and all.
I have to turn that empathy back toward me.
We all do.
Even if others don’t show up in mutual empathy, I can show empathy towards mistake-making parts of myself. When I do, I change my own little corner of the world because I am changing my own heart.
Sometimes I write letters from my empathic self to the hurt, mistake-making parts of me. It really works. If you ever have a hard time making a big mistake, I highly recommend this little trick. Here is my letter to myself. Borrow as much as you want.
I see how hurt you are. You made a mistake and feel sad, mad and embarrassed. I get it. I love you. You are so lovable even though you messed up. I know together we are strong enough to feel this all and be ok. You are earnest at learning from your mistakes. You can trust that. I am sorry I wasn’t taking better care of you. You made a mistake because I wasn’t nurturing you the way I know you need. I will do better to slow down and take care of you.”
We all mess up. We even mess up the big things that mean a lot to us (like I did). To think that you can live authentically without making mistakes is impossible. To not mess up requires living small, less authentic, risk-averse lives.
As I say to many of my clients, it isn’t that you are going to leave therapy never screwing up. You are going to leave therapy a more proficient mistake-maker so you can live a larger, more authentic life. You will catch your screw-ups sooner, treat yourself with kindness afterward, and that kindness will help you get back in balance, so you can live with intention rather than live with repetition of old, worn-out mistakes you learned when you were little.
We all screw up. We do.
How we treat ourselves after the screw up is what matters. There is a lot of talk about empathy between two people but empathy is something we can also offer the hurt parts of our own hearts.
When we do we soften and soft hearts create more soft hearts.
A world of soft hearts creates a just and loving world. Mistakes, from this lens, are just a tool to soften our own hard edges and the hard edges in the world. I empathize with you – mistakes and all.