9/20/2023 (Day #4284)
Empathy (and compassion)
I previously believed empathy and compassion were among my stronger positive traits, part of my core values and beliefs. Sobriety brought clarity that enabled me to reflect and re-evaluate myself honestly and candidly, and I saw room for improvement to be more empathetic and compassionate. I was satisfied with my capability, not with my capacity, especially in interpersonal relationships.
Closer examination revealed my pattern of unhealthy coping strategies in reaction to relationship conflict and dysfunction. I realized I had a habit of reacting to (mis-)perceptions and conflict by dissociating from people, cutting them off without appreciation of their perspective or consideration for trying to relate to what they might be going through. I’d convinced myself that dissociating from those “toxic people” was me exerting my independent nature and insulating myself from drama.
I comprehended the irony of my frustration and disappointment when I was the person being cast aside, cut off, and the profound hurt I felt on particular occasions when I was repeatedly pushed away and cast aside by people from whom I sought acceptance. Eventually I heeded the red flags that had been waving and acknowledged that it was counter-productive and not in my best interest to persist in seeking acceptance toxic and dysfunctional people. Later, I learned the relation of this to the “last resort” aspect of dissociation. Processing this in therapy helped me recognize that my insecurity and lack of self-confidence incited dumb and blind loyalty and how I’d unwittingly applied dissociation in a constructive manner as a “last resort”.
I sought empathy reform and capitalized on class opportunities to achieve it. Empathy was a topic of discussion in Pre-Treatment and then more extensive work in active SOTP-NR. Standalone classes, such as Victim Impact and Victim Empathy, supplemented the treatment program work. They all shared a discussion-centric format that I found essential to my learning and comprehensions. The discussions invoked relatability, and class members’ sharing their individual perspectives reflected diverse, although sometimes shared, views and ideas.
The key to unlocking my capacity for empathy turned out to be relatability and consideration. I routinely remind myself to accept people at face value with mindfulness that we all have things going on under the surface, helpful because it’s something I can relate to. And I try to remember that assumptions complicate things unnecessarily and invite judgment, so I resist assuming.
I’ve learned that dissociating from people, cutting them off, as a coping strategy is unhealthy and destructive. There are times when dissociating from someone may be necessary and justified – unhealthy or destructive influence of behaviors, for example – and it’s crucial that it’s undertaken, with empathy and compassion, as a last resort. It isn’t a coping strategy or a means of constructive conflict resolution. Even when enacted as a last resort, it doesn’t resolve conflict so much as imply an agreement to disagree.
I worked diligently in therapy with Dr. W. to align my beliefs and character with what I’ve learned about empathy and relatability. Our discussions emphasized dissecting my beliefs about empathy to replace the unhealthy and irrational elements with healthy and rational ones. I reconciled the willful estrangement of dissociation, and the collateral consequences wrought by denying empathy, by emphasizing relatability from personal experience on both ends of dissociation – I’ve been on the inflicting end, and I’ve been on the receiving end of it. I’ve accepted that I can’t change or control others’ actions, like casting me out or dissociating from me. I can control my end of enacting it towards others, though. I’ve taken ownership that using dissociation for willful estrangement as a coping strategy was a cowardly and lazy reaction to avoid or subvert conflict resolution. It was the “easy” path so that I didn’t have to face my own demons and skeletons in my closet, and it said more about me, my weakness and insecurity, than it did about the person I denied empathy by it.
I take responsibility for compromising my beliefs and values by selling them out to take the easy path. I’ve chosen to apply what I’ve learned and accept the challenges inherent to the difficult path, to preserve and protect the integrity of my values and beliefs. That path is illuminated by unconditional empathy and compassion for everyone. That is my true character.