My empathy education (this one’s for the personal development junkies).

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s position  (according to Wikipedia).

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As a health coach, empathy is crucial!  Today I want to share with you about my lack of empathy throughout my life, how I am building it, and how I plan on supporting others with it.

I’ve been thinking about empathy A LOT lately after receiving feedback from friends and family close to me around my attitude and behaviour.  My whole life I have been 100 % problem solving, driven, and focussed.  When an issue arises no matter what it is, I accept the issue and immediately jump into what can I do to fix this, what steps am I going to take, what kind of support do I need?  In many ways this way of being has supported me in creating success, health, and happiness in my life.  In other ways I also see how it has held me back.  From example, when you experience a set back, there is obviously some emotion  you feel around the issue.  For me, I have always jumped from set back to problem solve, and tend to skip over the ‘feel uncomfortable around the emotion’ part  As a result I notice myself uncomfortable in expressing certain emotions.  For example when I got my kidney disease at 18, rather than feeling sad, angry or depressed I jumped to “at least it’s not cancer, it’s probably fixable, I’m not going to let this bug me”.  Or when I’ve gone sky diving, bungee jumping, swarm with sharks, and rock climbed mountains, rather than allowing myself to be scared shitless (like I truly felt inside) I told myself to bottle it up, be ok, push through and just do it.  Feel the fear and do it anyways, has been a big motto for me in my life.  It’s brought me adventure and success, but this type of ‘motto’ hasn’t necessarily made it very easy for me to connect and support others.  Connecting with another person, whether it’s a friend, family, coworker, or spouse requires feeling emotion and managing and sharing it properly.  If I was always skipping the ‘feeling’ part- how was this affecting my relationships?

I started noticing friends not confiding in me when they had issues and people not coming to me to support them with their struggles and challenges.  Then I started receiving feedback like “it’s as if you don’t care”, or “I don’t want a solution just yet, I just want to feel sad for a bit”.  I started realizing that perhaps my ‘problem solving’ attitude wasn’t quite supporting everyone in my life.  I especially noticed it with my clients.  Clients who couldn’t stick to the ‘diet plans’ I used to provide them, or clients who couldn’t manage to get their workouts in, I didn’t get it!  I noticed myself wanting to do the coaching role less and less because I just couldn’t quite understand why someone would say they wanted to do one thing, but wouldn’t do it!

It’s never been a “I don’t care about you” or “you can’t do it” kind of attitude that I am presenting.  Frig, I get emotional just watching commercials, older couples walking hand in hand in the park, cute dogs running down the street, or people happy and hugging.  The emotions are there, I just didn’t know how to turn them into a skill to support others.  I truly care about people, truly want to see them succeed, and definitely don’t want to see them suffer.

All of these topics are topics I have now been thinking about for a few years.  A lot of my thoughts and research around supporting others has come down to learning about empathy.  Empathy is the ability to recognize a situation another person is in, feel it, understand it, and support them from the place they are at.  So for example, if a client is really struggling to get to the gym 4 times a week, it’s about understanding what’s behind the scenes there for them, supporting them from a place of ‘it’s ok’, and ‘you are doing your best’.  All of this is different from my typical “why can’t you just make it happen’!?

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As I learn about empathy more and more I learn that it is a innate skill in all people, yet sometimes those with autism or personality disorders are unable to feel and express this emotion/skill.  I know I am not labelled as having any kind of personality disorder, I think that just along the way in life I taught myself a skill that works tremendously well in most areas of my life, but not in relationships.  I have committed to practicing empathy because it is VERY important for me to have more solid, happy, relationships of all types in my life.

How I am practicing my empathy skill:

  1.  When people come to me with issues I keep my mouth shut!  Rather than making suggestions or trying to get my two cents in, I stay quiet.  I listen, I really try to make them feel heard and seen.  I try to get a good idea of what is going on for them.  I create space for them to say what they need to stay, and be emotional if they need to be emotional.  I try and relate to them with experiences happening in my own life once in awhile.  I say things like “I hear you on that one”, “Oh i totally get where you are coming from”, and “that must be so hard”.  It sounds funny to type this out, because for most of you this must feel natural, for me it’s a skill, and I am building it.  I notice as I interact with people like this they share more, we feel more connected, they are more open, and they are more likely to feel and benefit from my support for them.
  2. I try and really get a feel for what the issue is for them, and I try to relate it to something in my life.  As I allow myself to feel the common challenges and struggles in my life, I get to know a bit more about truly how I feel when something shitty happens.  As I allow this to happen more and more then I can relate to friends, family and clients as they share a similar story.  In the past when I didn’t allow myself to ‘go there’ with negative emotions I had no idea what it felt like to be broken up with, get fired from a job, screw up majorly on my financial budget, or feel really scared about something.  I simply sucked it up, realized I messed up and moved on.  Now, when my friends and family are experiencing a challenge in their life I have an emotional memory bank to relate to them from.
  3. I have started to realize that it’s not the ‘norm’ to suck things up, power through, numb out and do what you have to do.  I used to never understand why people who wanted to run a marathon couldn’t just suck it up and do the training, or people who wanted to do fundraising like me couldn’t just get the plan on paper and make it happen.  That’s because it’s hard!  Big tasks in life are challenging.  Many people experience challenges, and sometimes it sets them back, sometimes they over come them to completion.  For me, I just ignored challenges and powered through.  There is less benefit in this because I think it’s slightly selfish.  In the end I accomplish my dreams and goals, but by not going through the process I am unable to articulate and support others in doing the same.  Who cares if I make my dreams happen if I’m leaving others in the dust behind me.  Now, when people come to me with things they want to accomplish I become truly invested in figuring out what kind of support they need!  Rather than judging them for why the heck they can’t just make it happen, I try and make it my secret mission to get them there through empathy!
  4. By always being a negative emotion number, I think people started seeing me a someone who had it together and didn’t need support.  I started feeling shy around being sad, angry, depressed, confused, stuck, or lost in my life because I was so used to having my mask on of “I’ll make it happen”.  As a result, when I needed support from others I didn’t know how to articulate it, or where to get it!  As I slowly start to build trust in people that I can have all ranges of emotions and people won’t run away it feels nice to be a well rounded person!  Also, I know that by sharing all parts of me, people will be more likely to do the same, which creates meaningful connections.

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Even though I am building this skill, sometimes people’s complaining, playing victim, or wallowing in their own self pitty still really irks me.  People who really want something in their life but have every single excuse in the book not to do it.  People who are happier seeking other’s pitty rather than looking for solutions.  People who are unable to express the fact that something is uncomfortable for them and they need support or guidance.  I still can get really irked when I see friends or family still playing the victim.  I commit to staying in empathy for them.  No jumping to solutions, or shoving suggestions down their throat.  I will empathize and support.  But what do you think- don’t people just need a good blast of “Let’s do what you gotta do to make this happen in your life” every once in awhile.  How do I draw the line?

How will this help me as a health coach?

  •  I continue to develop my ability to guide and coach clients into better health, rather than tell them what and how to do things.  I know in the end this will create the best health and happiness results in my clients life.  It is all so new to me, and something I am still developing.  I will keep you updated as to how it is going for me!
  • I think the hard part is being a personal trainer and trying to have empathy.  As a trainer we are supposed to push our clients past their limits, and challenge them to create fitness results in their life.  How do i draw the line between empathizing with my clients, while also challenging them!?  Any suggestions from you?  What I am trying lately is using things like “I know this feels really hard for you, and I know you don’t think you can finish the reps, but I know you can and I’ll help you through it” or “I know you can see your limits in this workout, it’s going to get tough, but just breathe, focus and pay attention the which muscles are working”.  I think it’s going well.

I encourage you to look at empathy in your own life, and share with me what you think about this blog.

Do you think empathy in the end is the answer for creating meaningful friendships and relationships?

Do you think empathy is a key tool to being a great fitness coach and personal trainer?

Do you think being a ‘problem solver, driven, jump to solutions’ type of person is best as a personal trainer?

How do you support those people in your life who are victims, and wallowers to get into action?

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