The Perils of Empathy

(This is what spring looks like in Berkeley — wisteria blooming everywhere.  This post, though, is not about wisteria, in case you are wondering.  It is about the work/life balance and the way you have to shore it up all the time.  But there is a wisteria metaphor in the post, because it seemed like a good idea to have a goal in writing it:  to work in my favorite vine somewhere.) 

It was a phone call I’ve been putting off returning for weeks and weeks, a call to a woman I don’t know, a woman with whom I have in common a single person:  our lovely housekeeper and general childminder and morning helper, Lucy. 

Lucy works for us at various times during the week.  Every time she walks into our house I want to hug her.  She’s hugely helpful and she is the reason I’ve been able to work, and have children, and write a novel, and be relatively sane through the year of having cancer.  Lucy also works for the other family.  Let’s call the woman in that family Tessa, shall we? 

The message Tessa left was that she wanted to “close the loop” on “scheduling matters.” I hadn’t known the loop was open.  In fact, I didn’t even know I was inside a loop.  My heart sank.  It was obvious what Tessa really wanted.  She didn’t want to get clarity about something, and she didn’t want to “check in” as she said.  She wanted my permission to rearrange the arrangement that’s been working so well for us.

My first thought, after deciding that I don’t like Tessa because she is not straight up, was that changes in my schedule are between me and Lucy, not me and Tessa.  If Lucy wants to do something different, then she is perfectly capable of changing things with me. We’ve done it before.  I am not scary.  

After this weird loop-closing message, I asked Lucy if she wanted to change her schedule.  She made a face, as if to say, that woman is making me nuts.  She did not want to change anything she said.  She is fine with her work and her timing. 

Having learned that the person who does this work is happy with it, I ignored Tessa’s call (and the one she made a few days later) for twenty two days.  What I found more difficult to ignore is that I know she has two young children, is on maternity leave and is going back to work pretty soon.  She also has a husband, a guy I suspect doesn’t do much to help out around the house and who sees the work/life balance as her problem.  He also yelled at Lucy once (she blurted this out one day when I asked her how she was), so I am not inclined to feel charitable where he is concerned.  I know that this whole weird “closing the loop” call is Tessa’s way of trying to arrange things so she can work and parent.  The trouble is that she’s trying to work out this balance by unbalancing my own teetering effort.  

And that’s where empathy becomes perilous.   For a very long time, I responded to the knowledge that someone is having trouble by becoming so invested in helping them get out of it that their trouble became my own.   My own troubles and needs?  They did not seem to exist anymore.  

This is the sort of thing that made me a terrible litigator.  When the client’s trouble became my trouble it was as though I was the one being accused of terrible wrongdoing.  I would be defensive and upset every time I responded to the lawyer on the other side.  Never mind that I was not the one who displayed the poor judgment that got the client to the place where they needed to hire my law firm to defend them.  Their mistakes felt like my own.  Their setbacks?  Mine. 

Gradually, and mostly because I stopped doing that kind of work, it dawned on me that someone else’s trouble was not my trouble.  It was generally not my fault, and although I could feel sympathy for the person in trouble, I did not need to become them.  I could say, you and your lawsuit live over here — in a place that is not mine.  You got yourself into this mess, not me.  There is a hand gesture that goes along with this thought.  If you have trouble with this issue, you might want to try it:

Cup your hands together, and place the trouble you have been taking on inside the space in your hands.  (Obviously, you must pretend, this being a symbolic exercise.)  Now stretch your hands as far away from you as you can — across my desk is where I mostly do this.  And then gently deposit it all at this far away place.  Now sit back and repeat after me:  This is not my trouble.  This does not belong to me.  It is not of my making, nor is it my fault.  I can help, if I choose to, but only if I am clear that this is not my trouble. 

Knowing where I end and others begin has been the single biggest challenge I have faced as an adult.  That, and learning not to eat every last  bite of the chocolate cake just because I can.    

And so it is with Tessa (the trouble being her own, I mean — not the cake problem).  Her work life balance troubles live in her house.  Mine live in mine.  And in this case, I will not unbalance my own house in order to make her life easier. 

And that is what I told her on the telephone.  I could feel her efforts to entangle me in her world — to ask me about how I had arranged things, to see if maybe I was not needing what I think I need, to ask if I could do without a little of what I’ve arranged so she could have some of it too.  Wisteria is like this.  It’s a vine — if you look closely at it you’ll see the wonderful way it’s been engineered, with little sharp hook-like twigs all along it, hooks that grab on and don’t let go.  It’s beautiful though, and it drapes itself around the front of your house in the places you’ve decided you want it to be draped.  If you don’t want it someplace, you cut it back.  You are in charge of it, as you are in charge of most things in your life, because that is what it means to be an adult.

I know it sounds cold, but I did not give Tessa much more than an inch of frontage to hook onto.   It has taken a long time to achieve some serenity and balance in my life.  I will not give it up.

There is, of course, another subtext here, which is how it can even be the case that Tessa and I can decide something like this.   I said, over and over, this is not really our decision to make, although I am happy to tell you that things are working beautifully for me.  Lucy is the master of her work and her schedule.  If she wishes to make a change, then she and I will discuss it.  Not you and I.  This is another topic for another day — how we should behave in the face of the fact that we cannot control what other people decide to do.  And in writing about that, I will try to work in some reference to the Meyer lemon bush that is also ripe and beautiful this lovely spring day, and has been well worth waiting for through the long, cold wet winter. 


25 thoughts on “The Perils of Empathy

  1. Thank you so much for this post. I frequently get myself in a twist over making the troubles of others my own. I’m going to practice the hand gesture! Thanks again, and well done for standing up for yourself and your family.

  2. I am struck by how much this post could be a novella of three different women’s lives. The story has a narrative arc, three interesting characters, the subplot of the jerk husband, and issues that resonate with so many people. And it would be called, of course, “Wisteria.” (But forgive me, I have this terrible affliction of seeing novels everywhere I look.)

  3. When I started taking my writing seriously, I began to stand up for myself and my personal space much more. I realised I could spend 24 hours a day trying to please other people but they would probably be even less satisfied than if I told them: “No!”

  4. Hello and welcome Amy! It is indeed a twist you get into when you take on too much of someone else’s problems — a good signal that you need to do the hand cupping ceremony thingy!

    Helen, That’s a terrific insight. It never really helps people, in the end, to give in too much to them.

    Tai & LK — Ah, but then I’d have to write a story in which Tessa becomes more and more wisteria-like and I can’t find my sharp pruning knife, and she seduces my husband and … well, Lucy will solve it all, and make things right, which is what she does now anyway. As long as she has time, that is.

  5. Yes, a lovely post. I was remembering the time when I too realized that I didn’t have to take on everyone’s woes. Maybe 25 years ago. I wish I had had your symbolic gesture of emptying my hands to help me.

  6. Aack! I work on this all the time, myself! I woke up this morning at 5 a.m., working on somebody else’s problems and making them my own…and so all day I’ve been tired and grumpy and feeling that twisting sensation. This post was exactly what I needed. Helen, you are absolutely right about people being less satisfied when one is trying to appease and solve things for them than we just tell them NO in the first place.
    I am going to go practice the hand cupping gesture right now…thank you!

  7. Hello Jerry — I’m just going to guess, though, that you’ve figured out a way to separate yourself from your clients. It’s a skill that seems to take a long time to acquire — at least in my case. Others know instinctively that they are there to advise, not to become, the people who seek their help.

    Dear Nancy Ruth, It’s an important thing to figure out, isn’t it? It’s fun to know that there are now years & years ahead of me of putting the problems of other people in the right place.

    How funny Sandi — I was just over at your site thinking about shower cleaners dabbed behind one’s ears. Saying no in the first place is awfully hard, and goes against a lot of instincts. But it’s such a clean thing to do — hard as it is.

  8. Oh, I would feel terribly torn about a situation like this because it IS so hard not to take on other people’s problems, as you say, and I think you’ve worked it out beautifully.

  9. What a wonderfully vivid way of expressing this problem that we all have and your response to it. The way I think about it is that there is a cloud of drama that surrounds us all. I have my space in the center of that cloud where the drama does not extend. And when someone tries to do what you have described, I think of it as their drama, not my drama. Of course, I have my own drama too, which it is also useful to recognize.

  10. I liked this post, although I was sorry to hear that you’ve had difficulties with Tessa, who sounds painful! I can also identify with the perils of empathy, although perhaps not to such a great extent as you.

  11. Thank you for the wonderful symbolic method of getting rid of others’ troubles. Each of us is given enough trouble of our own, it seems, in this life. Why collect others’ as well? (Now, I just need to turn that into a mantra to repeat along with your hand movements.)

  12. Great post. I work in a helping profession (I’m a pastor), and I’ve had to learn to do exactly what you did with Tessa. If I didn’t I’d never be able to do my job. Boundries keep us safe and sane.

    And in my personal life, I have two daughters who were adopted in China, and the only way my wife and I were able to adopt orphans was to think of adoption as a purely selfish act. When we started thinking about the ways we were going to imporve the lives of our children, we couldn’t help but think of the millions of children we were not able to help, and it began to drive us crazy.

    It’s wierdly counterintuitive, but setting boudries, not making other people’s problems our problems actually enables us to be more compassionate in the long run.

  13. Excellent post, thank you! Learning not to take on other’s problems is a difficult lesson, indeed. I have been called “selfish” simply because I didn’t care about how others felt and gossiped about my conduct of my own life, imagine that… lost friends when I called them on it, too, but oh well.

  14. Kristin, I am thinking that the hand gesture and the chocolate cake should not be combined, because the cake would end up in me, rather than away from me. Small steps, I know.

    Welcome Donna, It’s interesting how language is used to discourage people from adopting perfectly healthy behaviors — calling self-preservation “selfish” for example.

    Dear Ben, That’s a really wise and helpful insight. The goal of being able to separate yourself from others isn’t to become selfish, it’s to be more effective in your efforts to give good counsel and assistance. I’m so glad to see you here, by the way. It’s been fun reading your posts on 9rules and I’m thrilled to find you closer to home. (And Happy Easter to you).

    Hello Emily, I do like that.

    Hello Lilian, I think this was about my fourth conversation ever wtih Tessa, and probably there won’t be many more!

    Hi Shannon — How nice to see you here. Clouds o’drama, with a nice quiet space in the middle. That’s a good vision.

    Dear Dorothy, That’s why you’re a nice person. Better to start there and ratchet back than to have to learn empathy and compassion from scratch.

  15. I realised that I behaved in this way when I read in one of the early Donna Leon books Brunetti’s recognition that he suffered from ‘psychological double vision’; he can always see the other person’s point of view and allows this to influence him. Since then (and I only read this a couple of moths ago) I have really tried to look more closely at my empathy and how I react to it. Your gesture is going to be very helpful – thank you.

  16. Bloglily, I have been so loooong finding you and now finally I sit down and make the effort and am so pleased I have!
    I’m in the caring professions too and over 30 years have had to learn that my boundaries are the most important thing to have in place when I sit down at my office desk and that’s where I have to leave all the awful problems of others when I go home. It almost seems heartless when you first start to do it but it’s the only way to survive.
    Your wisteria is well ahead of ours here in Devon by the way!

  17. I’ve had to do this myself in the last year with two of the most important people in my life. Just because I can lend a very good ear does not mean I am mother or psychiatrist; and just because one of these people allows herself to over-empathize with others does not mean I owe her an equal dose. Now there is more or less a balance of space and empathy between me and these people because I’ve set rather distinct boundaries. I can breathe now. I’m glad you made your call, and thanks for sharing this.

  18. Oh my goodness me, dear BL, you have just described my life. That thing you wrote about disappearing in the face of another’s need and distress, well, I barely notice myself leave. In a flash I am nothing but a solver of other people’s problems. I was brought up to sort out everyone else first, and then, when they were all fine, I could attend to myself. The problem is, other people never do settle down, or if they do, then other needy souls take their place. I think I need to read this post at least once a day, daily, for quite some time.

  19. Oh, your wisteria picture just made me want to cry again. Mine was JUST starting to bloom out and we had 4 days of hard freeze and all the blossoms are dead. Of course, wisteria is a twining vine that twists around and through supports you give it, spiralling around them and then growing tighter and tighter until it strangles the support. It can tear apart a fence, and crush 2x4s. So it is particularly apt as a metaphor for what can happen to your life if you do not make boundaries.

    How funny that attorneys and pastors have so much in common with massage therapists. One of the things I was taught very early on when I was studying massage was how important it was to not take on people’s problems: that they must own their own problems. Perhaps it is a lesson that should be emphasized more in other professional schools as well.

  20. This was a wonderful post. I love the way you wrapped it up and tied in the flower at the end. Your differentiation mantra reminds me of my sister’s which is shorter but works equally well. You simply check to see if it’s MY problem, or NOT my problem. If it’s NOT my problem, well then, there you are. I use it a lot when I find myself worrying about my adult sons and the choices they make, such as getting traffic tickets or choice of girlfriend. Since it’s NOT my problem I can’t fix it.

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