empathy and trauma

Empathy and trauma (and gestational diabetes)

love, empathy, openness

My heart has been very heavy this week and last. It’s been a weird time for me. I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy and trauma, and how I can have more empathy for others.

I have wondered if it’s better if I stay silent on social media for a minute- as a white person, do I have anything of value to contribute to the conversations about race? And I am absolutely terrified about what’s going on in Seattle. Isn’t it possible to make positive changes without taking over a city and firing all the police officers? (I genuinely want to know…I find it very confusing.)

In addition to feeling stressed about the current events going on in my country and even my state (yes, we have COVID-19 and race riots going on in Phoenix too), my brain decided this would be a good time to revisit a childhood trauma that I had never really taken the time to process. And if you think it’s impossible to suppress trauma from childhood and then suddenly relive it in your thirties…yeah, I used to think that wasn’t a thing either. (2020 is really turning out to be quite the year in SO MANY WAYS.)

Empathy and trauma: holding space for others’ pain

This week I keep remembering a moment in college when one of my professors said, “There’s just so much pain in the world.” Her whole countenance showed that her heart was heavy, burdened with someone else’s pain. I keep getting reminded that there is PAIN in the world–I have my own, and there is so much pain for other people.

In my process of exploring my childhood trauma, I have learned how important it is to hold the space for other people’s pain and allow them to feel it. People around me have helped by simply allowing me to tell my story and feel what I was feeling, rather than giving advice or telling me I should be feeling something different. That’s not an easy thing to do.

In the social media wars, with everyone having an opinion on the race riots and racism and what should or shouldn’t be happening, I feel it is important to express that we can ALWAYS be empathetic. We don’t have to agree with another person’s point of view in order to acknowledge their pain. It’s okay to say, “I don’t understand why you feel that way, but I can appreciate that you’re in pain, and I’m sorry.”

Empathy and trauma: gestational diabetes

And since this is a blog about gestational diabetes…what does this all have to do with gestational diabetes? When I was first diagnosed, I felt the need to “mourn” it for a day or two. I needed a little bit of time to mourn the loss of what I thought my pregnancy would be, and to come to terms with the fact that it would look different from what I originally planned. Someone telling me, “Chin up, just be happy because of x, y, or z reason,” would not have helped at all. I just needed to be sad for some time. Not forever. Just a little bit of time.

And, as it turns out, being able to tell your story to someone is actually healing to our brains! https://adamyoungcounseling.com/2019/12/10/why-engaging-your-story-heals-your-brain/ It is GOOD and HEALTHY for us to be able to talk about our pain to someone who listens kindly and allows us to express how we feel. (Side note, I discovered Adam Young’s podcast and blog this week and it has been AMAZINGLY helpful to me. I recommend it to anyone who is looking for resources to learn about trauma and healing.)

So why is that so difficult?

Why, when our friend is distressed about her mother’s terminal illness, do we feel the need to tell her, “Stop being so dramatic, it’s obviously her time to go!”? Why, in conversations about racism in 2020, do we have to keep plugging our ears and screaming “ALL LIVES MATTER ALL LIVES MATTER!!!” (Yes, of course they do, that’s not the point!) Why do we tell our friends, “Chin up! It’ll be okay! It happened a long time ago, why aren’t you over it yet?”

Why do we tell moms with gestational diabetes things like, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself, at least you don’t need to give yourself insulin…at least you don’t have preeclampsia…at least you don’t need to do Rhogam shots…”

Is it because we are trying to convince ourselves that we aren’t also in pain?

Are we trying to hide our own personal traumas and experiences that we never took the time to deal with in the first place?

Are we trying to convince ourselves that the other person had this misfortune come to them through some fault of their own, and therefore make it seem less likely to happen to us? (She has gestational diabetes because she ate too many donuts. He was assaulted because he should have known better than to go walking alone. He/she should have done something differently, and because I know better, it will never happen to me. Those parents whose child drowned were obviously not watching closely enough at the pool. I would NEVER accidentally leave my child in a hot car! Etc. etc. etc.)

Are we afraid that if we open ourselves up to a discussion about racism, that means we are condoning all the violent protesting? Or is it scarier to admit that we might learn something, might have room for improvement? Maybe we don’t quite understand our own privilege and it’s just easier to be defensive?

Are we afraid to mourn our own pain, because we think that if we start to feel sad, the sadness will never end? We’ll just be sad forever?

Are we afraid that if we let our children cry, they will never stop crying?

Feeling our pain is HARD. Examining our shortcomings is painful. Considering the possibility that tough things can ALSO happen to us, through no fault of our own, is also really hard. It’s scary! I HATE to think that I don’t have as much control over my world as I like to imagine that I do. Facing the reality of my childhood trauma for the first time is one of the hardest things I have ever done.

But pain is real. Other people’s pain is real. And, “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably give up on life and humanity.” (Richard Rohr) (Thank you Adam Young for introducing me to that quote; it’s my new favorite!)

Empathy and trauma: the takeaway

Now that I’ve started working through my childhood experiences, I am noticing the unhealthy thoughts and behaviors in my life that stem from my trauma. I have a lot of hope for my own healing. And I hope that this time can be transformative for our country.

And to the next woman I meet who has just been diagnosed with gestational diabetes: I see you and I am sorry for whatever painful thoughts and feelings you may be experiencing as you begin this unexpected detour in your pregnancy. I hope something on my blog might be helpful to you, but if not, I hope that it might help to know that someone at least feels some empathy for your pain and acknowledges that your pain is real.

We can ALWAYS be empathetic. If that expecting mom in your life has just been diagnosed with gestational diabetes; if your black friend is feeling stressed about how hard it is to be a black person in this country right now; if your friend has experienced some kind of trauma that you don’t understand– you don’t have to understand it. Just because you don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Just because you don’t think the person should be feeling pain, doesn’t make their pain any less painful.

Here’s to hope! Hope for transformation, and empathy, and making good changes. And hope that 2020 doesn’t have any more nasty surprises for us. (Seriously, murder hornets? Enough already.)

1 Comment

  1. What a great post about trauma and empathy. We could all use a reminder of what empathy looks like. Thanks for your authentic and humorous approach to this topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.