C-PTSD and Empathy
The Role of Empathy in Healing C-PTSD
July 29, 2021
This week I am talking about Empathy. You know, the power to be with the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another. It’s a special trait that everyone should work on developing as much as possible. Empathy is the glue that holds relationships together. No empathy, no relationship. It’s that simple.
Here’s a sweet article on listening. Remember, listening is loving.
We have probably experienced this with our partner on more than one occasion.
Here’s the official Webster’s Dictionary definition of Empathy.
This another wonderful article by Pete Walker. I really encourage all of you dealing with C-PTSD to look into this man’s work. It is absolutely exquisite.
Finally, here’s a nice article by by Matthew Tull Ph.D.
C-PTSD and Empathy
The Role of Empathy in Healing C-PTSD
July 29, 2021
Hello and welcome to Out of My Mind in Costa Rica-Living with Complex Post-Traumatic Stress. I’m your host, Ray Erickson. I decided to talk about empathy today because it is becoming increasingly clear that healing from relational trauma requires me to interact with safe people. People with a capacity for empathy. You know what I am talking about. People who can mirror back to you, your pain, so you can see it as a force outside of yourself.
But first, I want to thank my sponsor, the Out of My Mind Art Shop on Etsy. Go to www.outofmymindart.com and shop until you drop. Put a little whimsey into your life with a Magic Wand, a Flinger, Wine Charms or a beautiful, Magical Mobile. All proceeds go towards supporting the arts. Now back to the program. What were we talking about? Oh, empathy, that’s right.
When I am responded to empathetically, my defenses immediately relax, my breathing opens up and my affect softens. My body recognizes empathy, perhaps before my mind does. Regardless of the individual who is responding to me with empathetically, my somatic response is always the same. I immediately sense safety and along with that, I have the experience of being seen, seen for who I truly am, at a time when I am feeling most vulnerable. With that comes a corresponding feeling of connection. That individual and I are now linked in a way that only empathy can explain. It’s like a warm blanket on a cold winter’s night.
Webster’s Dictionary defines Empathy as:
1. the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
2. the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself: By means of empathy, a great painting becomes a mirror of the self.
In other words, Empathy is Connection. Connection with another person, animal, or object, like a painting or a photo of a loved one. Empathy is a direct like to another person’s consciousness, and it is not always comfortable. In fact, empathy can be downright uncomfortable for a lot of people. It’s scary to be empathetic with another human being. It means you have to let your guard down as well. Empathy can only occur when all parties feel safe with each other.
But that doesn’t mean you don’t feel empathy for people you don’t know, even people you have never met. I don’t know about you, but when I am watching a sporting event and one of the athletes gets injured, I too, feel the pain of the injury and I bet you do as well. This is a good thing. It means that we, aka humans, are wired for empathy. It is a natural act to respond with empathy to a person or an animal in distress.
It’s easy for people to respond empathetically to celebrations, like birthday parties and graduation parties. Good news is a natural igniter of empathy. Everyone can relate to happiness and each of us get something out of our connection to the people experiencing good news. Celebration is easy to empathize with. We all like to laugh and dance and sing and make merry. Humans have always liked a good party.
For many people, especially in the age of COVID-19 and its variants, we have not had a good party in a long, long, long time. I know I am feeling the effects of the absence of connection over the past year-and-a-half. I am more than ready for a good party. I want to party like it is 2019. YeeHaa! I am in an empathy drought, most because of COVID and I don’t know about you, it has had a powerful effect on me.
This has been an exceedingly difficult year for me, emotionally. I am separated from my wife. I have very few close friends. You know the kind of friends who you can trust to be there for you when you need a friend. I spend way too much time on my own and it causes me to think too much. Those of you who are suffering from Complex Post-Traumatic Stress probably know what I am talking about. My brain goes into overdrive and let me tell you, the road is full of bumps and potholes, and it is not paved. Sometimes it is hard to breath.
I have been separated since the end of October 2020, which makes it has been 9 months. I have been seriously depressed for the last 4-5 months. I am taking 30mg of Fluoxetine (Prozac) a day along with my daily doses of cannabis. The good news is I have significantly reduced my alcohol consumption. I feel good about that and when I do decide to drink, I am conscious of its effects. I should probably quit drinking alcohol altogether, but I have to admit, I do like alcohol even though at times I drink more than necessary.
Then, I feel like shit the next day and I get nothing done. Other than that, I will usually have had a great time the night before. The best thing for me is to limit how many times a month I drink. I’ve cut it down to 2-4 times per month. I’ve gone for as long as 9 months without a drink, but I missed a cold beer once in a while and I begin whining for wine if I go too long without a good cabernet. I like alcohol, but alcohol has always been a means of living on the edge for me. It can go either way, I can have a great time and be the life of the party, or I can be that sullen, sloppy drunk that everyone wishes would go away. I prefer the first option.
So, I don’t drink very much these days. Remember my Idaho stories, back in the early 1980’s? Let’s drink to what 40 years can do to make a difference in a person’s life. I know I am much happier with myself and my life than I was in those days. It feels good to survive your past and still feel good about your life.
Empathy. That’s what I was talking about. As mental health clinician for 30 years, I practiced the art of empathy on a daily basis. Some day’s I was so tapped out of empathy that all I could do was go home and turn on the TV, eat a bowl of cereal, smoke a bowl and go to bed. I always woke up renewed and ready to go at it again. I loved my job. I loved being a vessel of empathy for my clients. They needed it and I had plenty of it, for some reason. It would be many years before I recognized that I too, suffered from a lack of empathy as a child.
There is no empathy in an incest family. It is dog-eat-dog and survival-of-the-fittest world when you grow up in an incest family. How the hell I ended up with an overload of empathy, I can’t really explain. I don’t know how I came out of a family with little internal empathy and be capable of vast amounts of empathy. Maybe I got all the empathy the family had to give. Had I paid attention to this, I might have made some better life choices. But I didn’t and this is where I am today. I feel good about all of my efforts to help people over the years, and I am hopeful, that I will continue to help people through this podcast. You tell me. Am I doing any of you any good at all? I hope so.
Relational trauma or complex trauma as a child has dire consequences for those who experience it. There are those who’s ability to trust is so damaged that they are unable to genuinely connect with another human being and there are those who are so starved for acceptance, that they risk their emotional well being on people who are not trustworthy. Regardless of where we are on the continuum, we do it over and over and over again, relationship after relationship after relationship. Until we become conscious of this problem.
Types of empathy
1. Cognitive empathy
This type of empathy is an intellectual understanding of someone else’s feelings. It’s the ability to consider other perspectives without sensing or experiencing them yourself.
For example, if a colleague loses their job, you may recognize what emotions they could be feeling. You could also understand how their emotions might affect their behavior. This doesn’t mean you experience distress yourself.
2. Affective or ‘emotional’ empathy
People who have emotional empathy tend to feel another person’s emotions. Although not always the case, this may also include physical sensations consistent with such emotion.
For example, if you see someone under great distress after losing a loved one, you feel sad yourself and could experience chest or stomach pain while sensing that emotion in the other person.
3. Compassionate empathy or ‘empathetic concern’
Compassionate empathy is a combination of cognitive and emotional empathy. You recognize and understand another person’s emotions and also feel them.
Taking on another person’s challenges and hurt may end up taking a toll on you. This is why some people may not develop this type of empathy.
However, relating to other people’s suffering may also lead you to consider helping. And research suggests that when you do help, your body produces more dopamine — a “feel-good” hormone. This then leads and motivates you to continue acting on your cognitive and emotional empathy.
Examples of compassionate empathy include stopping your car to help if you see someone fall or donating to a cause after a natural disaster.
It is impossible to be a psychotherapist and lack empathy. Empathy is the cornerstone of effective therapy and a primary source of healing from Complex Post-Traumatic Stress as well as a host of other mental and emotional conditions. Empathy is at the core of our humanity. Without the capacity for empathy, we lose our sense of shared humanity. We digress and withdrawal from others because the risk of being hurt is greater than the risk of being vulnerable.
Vulnerability is at the core of empathy. No vulnerability, no empathy. The same could be said about love and vulnerability. No vulnerability, no love. We cannot love, nor can we allow ourselves to be loved without feeling the powerlessness of vulnerability. This is the critical ingredient to close and lasting relationships.
If it scares you to imagine yourself being vulnerable with another human being, it means that you are simply human. Our biology has been finely tuned to detect irregularities and threats. In order to truly be vulnerable, it is first necessary to trust yourself. Trust that you are more than the sum of your parts. You need to trust that the risk you take to trust another, to be vulnerable and to love, is greater than your fear of being wounded. People make these brave decisions every day and in every culture. The allure of love far exceeds the pain of rejection or abandonment. We, most of us, look for greener pastures, eventually.
We keep reaching out for love, seeking love in all the wrong places, and getting little reward in the process. Yes, we are safe, to a degree, but we are also imprisoned by our fear of intimacy. Humans are really creative creatures, and we dance all kinds of dances which we believe will keep us safe, but most of the time we end up isolating ourselves even more. This can become a madhouse when you are trying to straighten out your life after learning you have Complex Post-Traumatic Stress.
For me, being empathetic is second nature. I was the kid with the thin skin. I was the kid whose feelings were easily hurt. I was the kid who did everything he could to not let that pain show. I was always “Up”, never “Down” and if I was down, I made sure that I was down all by myself. If I were to kill myself, people who knew me might say, “Wow, Ray is the last person in the world I thought would kill himself.” That’s how good the charade was and is. Today, I try to hide the mask and treat each encounter as an opportunity to be genuine and sincere. However, I am still incredibly good at applying my mask if I need to. I’m sure you are too.
I would imagine that most people who have experienced repeated childhood emotional neglect have a lot of empathy for others. I know I do. I regularly cry at a scene in a movie or television program. I am always yielding the way to someone else. I cringe if I see someone fall down and I am often brought to tears by a song, or a story or a poem. I know of no other way of being, but all of this goes out the window when it comes to relationships.
I’m a sucker for a kind word, a gentle touch to the back of my hand. I get lost in the eyes of someone I love, and I guess you would call me a romantic, and that may not be an acceptable social standard these days. I just know I love to be in love and a big part of loving another human being is being there for that human in the moment with your attention laser focused on that person’s experience of their moment. That means putting our ego aside and truly focusing on the health and well-being of that one person, right now.
Empathy is a bridge to humanity or is humanity is a bridge to empathy? I’m not clear, but one thing I am certain of is, empathy is a primary requirement for me if I am going to be in relationship with you. It’s that simple. I’m 70 freaking years old and I no longer have time for people who are not empathetic. I have no time for people who are lacking in compassion, or humor, or sincerity. I want only the real McCoy, none of that fake McCoy nonsense they sell online. Not me. I want the real experience of empathy, flowing smoothly in both directions between two people who are courageous enough to allow themselves to be mutually vulnerable enough to taste the sweet nectar of love.
Yes sirree, I want all of my primary relationships to have a high level of mutual empathy and I will do my best to make all of my secondary relationships just as important as those few whom I honor by allowing myself to be vulnerable in their presence.
How do I get people to be more empathetic with me? You don’t. You don’t make them do anything. Instead, let yourself be vulnerable. You let your pain be witnessed. It does you no good to carry it around in a gunny sack. As long as you are unafraid of betrayal or abandonment you will attract into your life people who will hold your vulnerability in their hearts. In order to become fully vulnerable in the eyes another human being, you must first know, in your heart, that you are safe, regardless of how this person responds to your vulnerability. It doesn’t really matter, does it? If their reaction is not favorable, then you have learned a good lesson and they can go fuck themselves. But if their response is soft, and warm and inviting, like a warm blanket on a cold winter’s night, you may very well be rewarded by giving them their opportunity to listen and respond empathically with you. Acting empathetically gives your dopamine system a big boost. It feels good to be there, really be there for another person, but you already know this.
Letting yourself become vulnerable is a risk, I know, but there are a thousand reasons why you should trust yourself to be vulnerable and there is only one reason why you would not, and that is fear. You are afraid to make yourself vulnerable but, in your heart, you know you need people in your life who can be empathetic in your more vulnerable moments. This is critical to everyone in everyday life. When you are dealing with the symptoms of C-PTSD, it can be a lifesaving act.
The key to being empathetic is to be vulnerable to another’s vulnerabilities. It takes both parties to risk being vulnerable in order for connection to occur. Sure, you can listen and respond empathetically to anther person, but if that person is not allowing themselves to be completely vulnerable, then something feels off about the exchange, like what’s wrong with this picture but, if you probe a little, gently, maybe the person will release their fears and you can turn it around. So, don’t give up. Be patient when you are trying to empathize. Be soft in your actions and your tone and if it appropriate, reach out and touch them on the back of their hand.
The very act of reaching out and touching another human can heal decades of abuse and neglect. Maybe not all at once, but it does impact a person’s desire to heal from the devastating pain they feel. Make sure you have their permission. Some people don’t like to be touched, especially when they are feeling vulnerable. Instead, touch them with your heart, with the warmth in your gaze and the expression of acceptance on your face. It is not necessary to say anything, but if you must, share with them, share your understanding of their concerns. Tell them you care. Tell them you are there for them and then, wait. Wait for them to be ready to share. It’s really important to be patient with the process. Not everyone is like you.
The best place to start working on having more empathy is with yourself. Practicing self-compassion is a prerequisite. Seriously, how can you be there for another human if you are not there for yourself. They will notice your lack of self-compassion and more than likely put their guard up. Your job is simply to mirror them, not heal them or direct them because we all heal at our own pace and in our own time. Respecting this boundary is a must if you want to practice compassionate empathy with others. Practice on yourself first.
Self-compassion begins with self-care. Many people with C-PTSD were not adequately cared for physically or emotionally in their families, but that doesn’t mean you cannot create, build, and maintain islands of empathy within yourself and with others. It just takes time. It took a long time for you to get here, be patient with yourself, it will probably take a long time to heal from the damage you sustained. Self-care means taking care of the basics. Like feeding yourself and bathing yourself. Getting yourself off your ass and active in one way or another. (I am working on this right now.) It’s up to you. Be actively engaged with your life. Nurture those few relationships you treasure and most of all treat yourself with the same loving kindness you bestow upon others. It will pay big dividends.
I’m the first person to admit that I don’t always meet these simple goals. Especially of late. This has been an extremely challenging time for me. Lots of change, lots of sadness and depression. Lots of loneliness and isolation. I’m taking Prozac and listening to as much blues as I can absorb. What’s taken a back seat has been reading for pleasure, playing guitar, cooking well-balanced meals, physical activity and my personal hygiene has been somewhat lacking. Hey, if I am not going anywhere, what does it matter what I smell like. My cat, Don Gato still likes me.
So, if there is one thing, I can leave you with it is this. You have made this far. Give yourself credit for your resilience and ability to bounce back from whatever you have experienced. You have picked yourself up off the ground. Sure, you may have needed some help at the time, but you did it. And you will keep on doing it, let’s just try to make it a little less bumpy of a ride. Slow down, be mindful of your presence and your environment and always, always, always practice self-care and self-compassion. Nobody heals you. You heal yourself. Moment-after-moment, day- after -day, year- after-year. And I’m here with you, every step of the way.
Thanks to all of you who are still sticking in there with me. I hope to be more active in the future. Thanks for being patient with me and taking the time to listen to Out of My Mind in Costa Rica-Living with Complex Post-Traumatic Stress. Life’s not easy, but you can do it. It would help me a lot if you can leave a review, make comment, or give a rating on those platforms that permit you to do that sort of thing. Please continue to get the word out about this podcast. It is my calling at the moment, and I want to invite everyone to the party. If you are so inclined, write me an email at: [email protected]. I would love to hear from you and I will get back to you right away.
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Until the next time, Be Courageous. Be Strong and Be Kind. I’ll catch you later. Bye.