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Are you Preoccupied or Selfish?

In this morning’s group session one of our members abruptly announced he was going to take a three month trip across country with his wife and would be leaving group. Members were astounded as we have a guideline that when someone is going to leave they pick a date, and give advanced notice so we can go through a compete process of saying goodbye. This entails giving and receiving direct feedback, settling any leftover conflicts etc so the ending will feel and be complete. I have been through this process many times with clients and I have noticed over the years that the way people end, in essence how they deal with loss, is quite predictive of how their life will go in the future.

   How we cope with endings, how direct or indirect we are in our communication says a great deal about our ability to maintain closeness, intimacy and friendship. Rob is a very good person but highly self critical despite being enormously successful in his business, which is why he can afford to take such long vacations. He has suffered, by his own admission what I call “The Curse of the Capable”. He masks his insecurity and vulnerability through his achievements. This method has worked for him in business but certainly not in marriage and with the relationships in his life.

   Rob’s inability to let people know in advance that he was leaving fits with a number of difficulties he encounters in his life. He had difficulty telling his dying father that he loved him, he has difficulty telling his adult children how much he cares, turns his head away from whomever he is addressing when he is saying something positive that could bring about an intimate feeling. He struggles, in essence, with the fear of not being good enough in the eyes of others. He has difficulty taking the chance of being vulnerable, a necessary step to maintain intimacy, because of his irrational personal story that views vulnerability as exposing weakness and insecurity. He was afraid he would disappoint people if they knew in advance of his departure, he didn’t have the faith in himself to believe he could state his intentions and emerge with a positive rather than a negative outcome. Ironically we are all happy for him that he is finally leaving work and making a giant step to enjoying life.

   He told the group that he thought we knew he was leaving since he had mentioned on different occasions about taking such a trip. He mentioned that he had this conversation in his head so many times it felt like it actually took place. Another common dynamic of those who are preoccupied is that they have meetings in their minds so often they start to act upon these meetings as if others actually attended. The other result of being preoccupied is a person like Rob thinks about a particular issue so much they expect others to appreciate their efforts and understand their needs when do they finally let others in on their obsessive thought process at its conclusion. One of the women he has helped considerably told him she was very disappointed that he did not have the concern to inform us, or have the trust in group members to let us in on his plans. Another member, a fellow business owner who has felt considerable camaraderie with Bob, echoed her sentiment but added, “I think below the surface Rob you are a very selfish man, I think you tend to want things your way and don’t consider how you affect other people”.

      I interjected at the end of the meeting that I think there are in fact, two kinds of selfishness. One is based on truly not caring about people, individuals who are narcissistic by nature and use other people simply for the self interested function they have. The other, particularly for people who suffer from The Curse is based on being preoccupied. Rob is not a good listener for instance; he is often planning his response as a person is talking to him. He is so worried about his image that he is rehearsing his response rather than listening. Like many who are preoccupied his memory and concentration are compromised which leads to people close to him feeling un-important and not heard. People, like group members, end up feeling that he is self centered and selfish. I think, through knowing Rob for some time, that this is a surface explanation and does not speak to the anxiety he is experiencing on a deeper level. He is not a man who does not care; he loves his wife, his children and truly cares about group members. His preoccupation however, a common dynamic among achievers, makes his relationships less than satisfying. The irony is that when he relaxes, pays attention, gets involved beyond himself, people find him loveable and kind. Rob must change the old story in his mind that says love and respect is dependent on achievement to the realization that achievement is important in life but ultimately without the relationship skill of empathic listening life will always feel like something is missing.

   As group ended we could all see Rob felt awful, several people encouraged him to continue phone sessions with me and to not perseverate on the negative comments exclusively. He certainly had a strong tendency to cement criticisms in his mind. As I walked out of group with him, everyone was waiting in the parking lot. They all hugged him individually and made him make eye contact. As he walked away with tears in his eyes, I asked him how come he didn’t hug me. He returned, looked directly at me, and gave me a huge hug and said “ I wish I had the courage to let people in more, I am still afraid of the outcome, guess I just didn’t want to feel vulnerable, I love everybody in this group, including you”. As I walked away I said to myself,” This is not a selfish man!”

The Amazing Power of Empathy

Empathy is the capacity to understand and respond to the unique experience of another. In my 30 years of clinical experience, I have learned that empathy is unquestionably the most important capacity for a successful personal and professional life. It facilitates all day-to-day encounters. Empathy is also essential to creating real intimacy and satisfying long term relationships.

Sympathy and empathy are often confused. Sympathy is an involuntary feeling-the passive experience of attempting to console in a general sense.

Empathy is an active process in which you try to learn all you can about another person rather than having only a superficial awareness.

We all have an innate capacity for empathy. When we are not treated with empathy, the capacity atrophies, like a muscle that is not used. When we are treated with empathy, our unique personality honored, we learn to be empathic; the muscle increases in mass and strength.

Here are some guidelines to develop empathy:

Ask open ended questions.

Closed-ended questions limit or manipulate the other person’s answer, automatically introducing a power play. The respondent can choose submissive agreement, combative reaction or sullen refusal to play along.

For example, the closed-ended solution: “Do you think my solution is unreasonable?’ might be answered with “I guess not” or “Yes, as usual” or even stony silence. Whatever the reply, the interaction creates a winner and a loser. There can be no common ground or genuine exchange of information.

The open-ended question, in contrast, “How do you see a solution shaping up?” conveys respect for another’s opinions. It initiates a dialogue that can lead to real communication and understanding.

Slow down.

Easing the pace allows volatile emotions to be tempered with thoughtful reflection. We can then grasp the whole picture, not just a narrow, unconstructive focus.

Avoid snap judgments.

It is natural to categorize behaviors based on our own past experiences. But people constantly change.

Don’t jump to conclusions about anyone’s current mental or emotional state, no matter who you have encountered with similar features or mannerisms.

Obstacles to Empathy

Accusations such as “You always react that way” or “I can read you like a book.” Such statements are a turnoff to others and can block you from discovering the truth.

Pay attention to your body. Our nervous systems talk to each other; some researchers define empathy as a nervous system state which tends to stimulate that of another person. When a mother plays with an infant, their hearts beat in time. When one person raises his voice, the other’s heartbeat speeds up.

Consider past experiences and the current circumstance. Strong emotions often emanate from previous, still-unresolved conflicts. Difficult conditions can also affect behavior. Ask yourself: Am I reacting only to the receptionist’s unfriendly manner or to her strong resemblance to a cold, critical figure from the past.

Is the receptionist curt because she dislikes you or because her demanding boss always overbooks?

Let the story unfold. Of all the skills involved in empathy, listening requires the most concentration. It also rewards you with more productive conversations and greater knowledge. Think how much more open and cooperative you feel when you are truly heard rather than cut off or thoughtlessly categorized.

Strategies for better listening

Become all ears. Letting your mind wander, rehearsing your own words or mentally arguing deafens you to what is being said.

Remain unbiased. We all have stereotypes that interfere with our judgment. The most important “truth” is what you hear in the current moment.

Physical health.

Remember moments of empathic connection reduce tension, lesson release of stress hormones, reduce blood pressure and most importantly widen the lens we see the world with. We ultimately realize we are all more alike than we are different.