Gena is frightened of her husband because he is physically abusive. She says, “I’ve got to conquer this fear so I can deal with this situation.”
Frank is angry at a co-worker, Adam, because he is always undermining Frank at work. Adam spreads false rumors about Frank; he lies to Frank to trick him into acting in ways that irritate the boss; and he tries to sabotage Frank’s work to make him look bad. Frank says, “If I don’t take some anger management classes I just may injure this nut.”
Kim’s neighbor, Taylor, is always flirting with Kim’s husband, Seth. Kim gets really jealous when she sees them laughing together, and she’s mad at herself because she knows Seth has no romantic interest in Taylor, or any other woman for that matter.
Gena, Frank, and Kim are all feeling stress and trying to cope with it as best they can. But notice the context in which they focus their coping efforts: Their emotions! Gena doesn’t like her fear; Frank is worried about his anger; Kim is ashamed of her jealousy. Each one of them is engaging in self-criticism, self-absorption, and self-pity, because they make their problems about them and their emotions.
In situations like these, focusing on yourself and your emotions is not the way to cope with stress. Rather, try letting empathy toward your tormentor kick in. “Huh?” you ask. “You want me to feel sorry for the person who’s making me miserable?”
Absolutely not. In this example, by empathy we mean focusing on and understanding the motivations and issues of the other person, and meeting the challenge they pose within that context, not within the context of your emotions. Gena, Frank, and Kim, for instance, need to accept that the emotions generated by their dilemmas are quite normal, and that they need to take action not against themselves, but against their persecutors.
Gena enlists the help of a divorce attorney, the police, a women’s shelter, and friends and neighbors who know what’s going on and can corroborate Gena’s accusations. She lets her husband know that she will no longer be the target of his power trip and she has the resources behind her stop him.
Frank confronts his co-worker and tells him he is ready to file a harassment complaint with the Human Resources Office. He lets Adam know he has a detailed log of incidents and will bring it to the attention of their superiors if necessary.
Kim tells her husband how his flirtations make her feel, and it’s time for him to “man-up” and act like a responsible husband who values his marriage and family. If he wants to play like he’s single, she will accommodate him!
All these actions form what we mean by empathy. Gena, Frank, and Kim must make it clear they are not looking for pity from their tormentor, but are prepared to stand up to them in the context of the bully’s issues, not in the context of their own emotions. Doing so gives them the upper hand because each demonstrates that, “I understand your motives and where you’re coming from, and I can handle you.” See how empathy is involved? “I understand your motives” is putting empathy to work for you.
The absence of empathy is denial. Gena, Frank, and Kim can choose to deny the reality of their tyrants’ motives and continue to suffer. Empathy, on the other hand, can be used to generate acceptance of what is going on, and assertiveness of what they can do about it. They turn the tables by forcing their adversary to make a choice; they have made theirs.