From oxygen masks to understanding: naming the emotion is key to empathy


To be understood as to understand,

The need to be understood has been a lifelong struggle for me. I suspect I am not alone in this, but admit to having very little perspective, as immersed in that longing as I’ve been. The problem is, during an encounter or argument with a loved one, to keep insisting on being understood closes me off from their needs and leads to repetition and stridency.

It strikes me that one of St. Francis’ overarching messages is that we always have the choice between turning inward and reaching outward, between isolation and connection. Between victimhood and generosity. It’s no accident that connection feels better. That being true, I wonder what stops me. Other than years of habit (not to be underestimated), why do I so often fall into the trap of insisting on being understood? 

It’s easy to confuse this need with the Life Coaching dictum to put your oxygen mask on first before assisting another with theirs—an apt metaphor for the importance of self-care. The key word there is “self.” Could it be that my perception of not being understood comes from a lack of understanding of myself? Or, going a step further, a lack of inner attention, of self-love?

There is always the danger of going too far with this, which leads to extended navel-gazing and counterproductive isolation. That said, for me it’s been very helpful to spend time each morning in my journal, where I can ask any question and bear witness to my deepest longings. And find the understanding that I am not alone and I am loved. Come to that, this same reassurance is available in the forest or anywhere outdoors, when I take time to be still and listen.

A few years ago, my husband and I took a class in parenting to prepare for the looming teenage years. It was a well thought-out program blending different strands of psychological research, the upshot of which was to help a child develop robust social-emotional skills. In any given situation, there are steps to being an effective social-emotional mentor for our child.

The first step is empathy, which builds understanding and trust. It sounds so simple, and it is, until I am emotionally triggered by a situation. The fascinating thing is that brain research has shown if you can name an emotion while you’re feeling it, that’s a first step to understanding it, rather than being hijacked and controlled by it.

In this class, we learned that anything else we say during an encounter with our son will be far more effective if we put empathy and understanding first. Though it sounds a tad manipulative, when practiced from love and a genuine desire to connect, it becomes magical. From a lifetime of wanting to be understood, I know how wonderful it feels when someone takes the time to understand me. It’s like they are reaching across a lonely ravine that I stepped over myself, inviting me to return.

Understanding requires a level of competence with emotion that I am still working on, having received zero guidance as a child myself. To face that full spectrum of intensity, from anxiety to frustration to sadness to anger, to stand in it and name it with love and empathy, requires a great deal of equanimity. The simple awareness that this is possible has opened a door that gives me great hope.

Today I will cultivate awareness, so that when opportunities arise to practice, instead of resisting and turning inward, I can take a breath, name the emotion, and give the gift of empathy to whoever I encounter: myself, a loved one, friend, or stranger. Understanding is a precious gift that returns priceless rewards in the giving.

3 thoughts on “From oxygen masks to understanding: naming the emotion is key to empathy

  1. My first therapist pointed out to me that I always said “I think …” and never said “I feel ….” . It was many years later when another therapist asked me what if felt when such and such happened and she handed me a list of words that were feelings. When I looked over the list to pick out the word that best corresponded with how I thought I felt (see) I was taken aback. These are feelings?
    I never really knew until she handed me that list what feelings really were.
    The list was taken from the book, Non- Violent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg

    Reading that book really opened me up to accessing my feelings and learning to share them in a way that was non-confrontational. It taught me to slow down, identify what I was feeling and respond constructively rather than reacting in the moment.

  2. Your comment made me smile, Duane — with absolute recognition! I had the exact same experience when I first picked up the book, “How to Raise an Emotionally Intelligent Child” by John Gottman. I thought, “My oh my, do I have some work to do.” Which quickly led to Marshall Rosenberg. I carried his wallet-sized card around with me for so long! You know the one with emotions on one side and needs on the other? I have to laugh now; that’s how remedial I needed. Pretty pathetic. 😉

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