Turning Empathy Inwards

“If someone comes along and shoots an arrow into your heart, it’s fruitless to stand there and yell at the person. It would be much better to turn your attention to the fact that there’s an arrow in your heart…” Pema Chödrön

People’s hearts are punctured early. A parent knows when their child is upset straight away, from the downward curve of their lip and from instinct. The rush to protect is strong, the empathy immediate. Through our children, we are plummeted back to our own childhood traumas.

What happens to adults assailed by hurts and disappointments? We often go into ‘problem solving mode.’ Trying to analyse the issue from a number of angles in order to fix it. We speak to those who have cast us into this state and attempt to understand them. In theory, this should work. However, interpersonal dynamics are fraught with ambiguity and nuance. To dismantle the interwoven strands of our own histories and wounds along with theirs is a near impossible feat. How can we fully comprehend their actions, thoughts and emotions? We can’t. What is possible is tenderness towards ourselves. Taking stock, gentle self-talk, even through despair and bewilderment. Taking our own hand, leading ourselves back to a calm and centred place. It can be a long process. Lack of self-worth is part of these attempts to problem solve. This is because conflict resolution can be an attempt to gain external validation. It’s essential to turn our attention inward and make sure we’re okay. Not the other, but our precious selves. Because what use are we to the other if we’re in a weakened state?

I’ve given a lot of myself to a small number of people, sometimes too much. Those who open up less but extend themselves to more people are possibly the happiest. I can’t change who I am — someone who is only comfortable sharing with a few. When things go awry it can be extremely painful, but I wouldn’t change both my desire to go deep and my natural reservation. It is simply the way I have always been. My empathy makes me want to know certain people not just through their interests and desires, but through how they think and feel on a soul level. This curiosity has led to me writing novels and having a clearer understanding of myself.

There is no fast track to mending emotional hurt. There is only self-love. Sometimes we meander away from it in our attempts at connection. It’s always there to be found, either in solitude, or by surrounding ourselves with those who nourish us.

Compassion is part of leading a satisfying life. Yet it must be done within the framework of rock-solid boundaries and a strong sense of our own value. Our walls of protection can be eroded and damaged — it’s important to be mindful when this occurs. At the same time, the vulnerability that makes our interactions loving and meaningful should remain.


Photo by Guillaume LORAIN on Unsplash

4 thoughts on “Turning Empathy Inwards

  1. Kate, I can’t find the words to express my response to this piece. I love the way you wrote with such nuance about an idea that is often just a 3 word meme. I think your thoughts will sit at the back of my mind for a long time to come.

    Liked by 1 person

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