I started writing this post a while ago, teased that it was coming and had yet to write it until now. With setting up a new website, much of my time was taken up with moving content and waiting for my domain to move to a new host. Shew! Sorry for the delay.
So here I was, attempting to explain empathy to a group of women when I was struck with a statement, "I agree with that as a Yes and No because you cannot know exactly what someone is going through if you have never been there." This individual went on to explain that how can someone know what it is like losing a baby to miscarriage if they have never gone through the situation themselves? They cannot really empathize with that person. I was a little heart broken that my idea of empathy was not as easily grasped as I had hoped, but I do like the idea of giving up, so here is this post.
Imagine with me, if you will, you have a dear friend that has lost a child. It could be from a car accident or a long-time illness, the situation does not matter. Your friend is devastated, heartbroken, questioning in God on a minute by minute basis and you are fortunate enough to go home, after visiting with your friend, and hold your children tight. You can smell them, you are able to feel their skin next to yours, you are able to accept their kisses and tuck them into bed. You have no idea what it is like to lose a child, you have yours. So here is where empathy rules over the act of sympathy. Imagine further, taking your heart out and placing it into that dear friend of yours. You may not know exactly what your friend is going through, the planning of a funeral, the loss, the tears at the tiniest of memories of their child, but you can imagine their pain. You can put yourself in their shoes. You can imagine so intensely that you begin to feel the pain that your friend is feeling. This is empathy. Empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes even if you have no idea what they are exactly going through. You then understand that mere words cannot put back together the broken pieces. No, “it will get better with time” or “imagine them in God’s arms” because you know that comfort is merely an illusion. Instead you stay next to someone and allow them to cry, to be angry, to shout, to pray, to fall apart and you offer a warm embrace when they need it.
Back to the comment from the young woman above, I have been blessed with four beautiful children. I have never been pregnant and lost a baby as all mine were born happy and healthy, yet I have the capacity to put myself into the shoes of a woman who has miscarried. I kiss my beautiful babies (even as teenagers now) and feel how blessed I am and can imagine how empty life would be if there were not around. As a mother, I can take my life experiences and imagine the inverse of my blessings in order to help someone through their pain. Now, I am not knocking the immense importance of shared experiences. I have mentioned numerous times how humans were created for relationships to share our happiness as well as sorrow with others and to be a helping hand to someone who is struggling.
Empathy is being able to put yourself into someone else’s shoes, to “share someone else’s feelings” while sympathy is feelings of “pity and sorry for someone else’s misfortune”.
For a great illustration, please watch Brene Brown explain empathy in her short video on YouTube. I was shown this is my Adolescent Psychology class and have used it with my children to explain the difference between sympathy and empathy.
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First and foremost, I give the utmost respect to those who have sacrificed their lives, who have nearly lost their lives, and those who suffer daily with the demons of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I am a very proud wife of an Army veteran who has multiple deployments and plenty of garrison duty (on post or constantly called back to post) under his belt. To say that my husband is my hero just may be an understatement of the century. We both loved being within the Military community, my husband was meant to be a soldier and was very good at being a soldier. When he went into basic training, he was waiting to be broken down, beaten down to the point that he was the Army’s blank slate. He believed and still believes in defending the nation and stops when the Star Spangled Banner is playing, when the Pledge of Allegiance is being recited, and makes sure to remove old flags so they can be retired with dignity. Yes, my husband loved being a soldier. To this day he is willing to talk about his service when asked, doesn’t have adverse reactions to loud noises despite a barrage of mortar music while overseas, and doesn't have scars attributed to war time. So, with all this under consideration, why did we struggle as we have? We recently celebrated ten years of marriage, sometimes a surprise thinking back to the strain in our relationship that really started to escalate when my husband separated from the Army. Sure, he had a military sternness about him when our two oldest children we young. After all, he was familiar with training and managing soldiers, so why should handling two toddlers be any different? Our real issues began after my husband left the Army. He struggled with drinking, which was a problem in service but was confounded by the fact that he no longer was bound by the Army’s constant beckoning. He left the Army because he no longer wanted to be separated from his family, but he was often times out drinking, returning home well into the morning. Little by little, he became easily agitated, and the direction of his aggravation was quite often his wife. I felt, more often than not, that I had to walk on egg shells. To keep a peaceful house, I had to regulate my emotions. I would cry and this made him confused and irritated. He would think in black and white terms, the gray area of life was elusive to him. He drank and chose that particular time to begin to nit pick on my flaws, and when I became defense in return this made him more angry and blind to his own behavior.
When we were active duty, he and I once got into an argument on his willingness to put himself in harms way. I didn’t understand why he would give up the chance to return back to his family, and he didn’t understand why it didn’t make sense for him to take the place of a less experienced soldier.
After his discharge from the Army, he was regretful. He felt that since his service did not compare to that of his WWII grandfather’s service that he was not good enough. He is a man that would put himself in harms way to save his fellow man, but this was and has remained never enough. He is the man that when the country is under attack, you want him in your corner, but this was and is not good enough.
So, here is what my heart has to say. Thank God, I still have my husband with me that his service to our country and unwavering devotion to this country did not take him from me. However, here is where the proud wife of a veteran begins to feel her chest tighten up. There are numerous times that I fell to the floor of our bedroom in tears. I was breathless as I fought to understand who the man was that I married. I couldn’t understand his cruel nature or why he was breaking my heart. I was angry when he’d come home from drinking. There were times when I prayed for God to take him because my unwavering devotion to him meant that I would never leave him. I was beginning to feel numb to our marriage. It was only due to an act of God that he began to understand how much he had broken my heart throughout our ten years of marriage. He began to understand how to communicate to me. He began to understand that when I cried, I just needed his touch and that he did not need to fix me, but be there for me. I believe this is what life is like with a veteran when it is not PTSD or at least, this is what our life looked like after his service. I am still learning and trying to piece together the puzzle of our life together. I am still working to separate what is genetics, what is his personality, and what is the soldier, but now I am able to appreciate the muddy road we have been traveling together. I am working to deal with my own anger, frustration, and sadness over my broken heart, so that I can continue to appreciate where we have been and where we are going. Please know that each and every veteran and their spouse have their own story, and that service affects everyone differently. Our life has not been without its trials. We have fought and torn each other down, but through God have finally reached a point of peace, and now we live our lives to keep it. Only now I am able to say that we are blessed through our brokenness.
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What does this even mean? Well, I can officially say that I have been on the giving and receiving end of psychotherapy and I want to give a few pointers from both ends on how to make the most out of your therapy experience.
First and Foremost, please give therapy a try if you feel like you are struggling with any form of mental health even if you cannot put your finger on it, give it a shot. You will be surprised with how much you learn about yourself. I feel like the mental health field is growing in truth, which is making mental health professions more of a legitimate field.
1. Let's be honest here, mental health is a real thing. The brain is a powerful organ in the body that holds A LOT of power over the body and let's also be real about the truth that we are not even sure how to unleash all its power. Doesn't it make sense to reach out for help to attempt to make sense of how this organ works.
2. When you are searching for a mental health professional, let me give you a few pointers. If you are looking for a therapist that is under your insurance, you are going to have to do some research. Not all therapist take insurance or take your insurance. Why is this, therapist have to apply to be on an insurance panel. We do not automatically get to charge any insurance that we want. We are very sorry for this because we believe that mental health services should be available to everyone.
3. You deserve to be comfortable with your therapist. I am not saying that there are not going to be times when you are going to possibly be upset with your therapist or feel the need to question them, but overall, you need to be safe and secure with your therapist. If you are not, you have the right to switch to someone else.
4. This goes along with number 3, advocate for your health. If this means that you need to coordinate care with a therapist, primary care doctor, Psychiatrist then BY ALL MEANS, do so. We have contracts that you can sign so we can talk to any person that you want us to, which makes coordination for care easier.
5. There are going to be days that you are not going to feel like talking to your therapist. This is normal. Sometimes things, life, stuff or whatever you want to call it becomes overwhelming and you just DO NOT want to talk. That's okay. We, as therapist, need to respect that sometimes words are not needed and are difficult to come by. We can sit together and work on other things that do not require talking.
6. Please know that we do not (well I DO NOT) feel like I am above you in any way. I respect the fact that you have chosen to sit with me, in my chosen space, and share your life with me. I respect this choice that you have made. I cannot speak for all mental health professionals, so if you do not get this vibe from your mental health professional, you have the choice to choose someone else.
7. I considered myself a Psychotherapist "therapist", which I believe is more than a counselor. Below you will read the information from my current practice and supervisor on the difference between the two titles and positions. We are here to lead you to a better life where you are able to make the best choices possible for you. We don't just sit and give advice, but help you answer your own questions. We are a helping hand on your life's journey.
8. Last, but certainly not least, please do not expect us to fix you. I have depression, I do not expect to be fixed by anyone else. I take medication on a daily basis, a choice that I know is what is right for me. There are days where my depression symptoms can take over and I have bad days, but I am much better than I have ever been without medication and therapy. We are here to help, but we do not have magic wands. Things can and likely will get worse before they get better. Therapy is a brave choice that opens up wounds and brings light to the truth.
Definitions from Webster's Dictionary
the treatment of mental disorder by psychological rather than medical means.
a person who gives advice or counseling
From Community Recovery Counseling Center: Kristina Wessels, MA LPC
Counseling or Psychotherapy: What is the difference?
You have taken your first steps by inquiring about the difference between "counseling" and "therapy." Counseling is more about interpersonal relationships and how to improve them such as marriages, families, siblings, friendships and premarital relationships. Marriage and Family Therapy looks at the family as a system that for some reason is not working to its fullest potential. Those with an LMFT--a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist--have gone through training to understand how family systems work and how these systems can become dysfunctional.
Psychotherapy is intrapersonal which means you are looking into yourself and understanding what is working for you and what is working against you. Sometimes certain behaviors are used as a way to survive. As circumstances change, these behaviors may not be needed anymore, yet, are still being accessed so they are working against you rather than for you. The easy part is knowing that something is broken or not quite working right in your life. The hardest part is knowing what needs to change and whether or not you are ready for that change.
Psychotherapy is the journey you and your therapist will take so that your fullest potential has the ability to be revealed. The best part is that you are on this journey with a fellow sojourner.
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