Mind, Body, Emotion
I’ve been pondering and learning a lot about what us white people refer to as empathy. Being empathic. White people seem to put empathy on a pedestal and worship it in ways other cultures do not. Both in themselves and when they see it displayed by others. It’s something that is odd to me and also something I connect to so I decided to sit in the unknown and see what comes up. To be clear, that doesn’t mean sitting around doing nothing. That means sitting in my discomfort and listening, reading, learning, watching, etc.
Here’s what I’m understanding so far. Currently mainstream thinking breaks humans into parts. I see this as problematic and also symptomatic of our times and hope we can return to a more holistic view of humanity but here we are. Radically accepting what is. We’re usually broken down into brain/mind, heart/soul, and body. For clarification I’m starting to view heart/soul work as emotional work. It appears to me that what we call a soul, or spirit, etc., is emotion. It took me a few days to grasp that because it’s so simple and straightforward and also totally different from what I was raised with which is basically that a soul is a ghost. That’s a crude understatement but it’s the part of us that lives on after our body is in the ground. I no longer subscribe to that thinking of existing and have been struggling for several years now to figure out what I believe a soul to be. I have very real experiences that I need to understand and take back ownership of hence, the focus. I really do believe it’s our emotions. In our (U.S.) culture we aren’t taught to live with our emotions. We’re taught to tame, get over, repress, ignore them. No wonder it’s so easy to believe they are something separate from us. Outside of us. Something divine and otherworldly. This new understanding of soul helped me piece the rest together. This, again, is crude but it’s a foundation for me to build from. If we’re going to split ourselves into three then my (and many others—it took me forever to understand it) definition is mind, emotion, body. Nothing metaphysical or mysterious about that. I am whole and complete as I am. I do my best work when I am addressing the needs of my whole being, not just a part of it and this has helped me reincorporate all my parts. As I understand myself and how I interact with the world I see that I first and foremost view, see, and experience life emotionally. I then connect my emotions to my mind and attempt to make sense out of what I’m experiencing. What patterns do I see? How does that make sense in the context of other experiences I’m aware of? What from my lived experience is influencing the situation? Where’s my information coming from? And many, many other questions. (Hi. Over thinker here. Or, maybe the right amount of thinker if it’s working for me so far.) Only after my emotions and mind are synched can I even attempt to connect my new understanding to my body. That realization rocked through me like a wave. Which, incidentally, is how that particular bit of learning connected to my body. I now can walk my life with that foundation set holistically.
When I look around me at my family I see that I am alone in this emotion to mind to body experiencing so I got curious and asked my family how they interact with the world using this model. Two of them said they connect mind to emotion to body. One was mind to body to emotion. One was body to mind to emotion. None of this information surprised me but it was important for me to allow them to self identify their process. Consensual connection and understanding. It doesn’t matter what order they went in, they were able to access each step whether it was first or last. All of this helped me see what was right in front of me the whole time but was obscured by unhelpful/harmful cultural messaging. It’s like a land slide came and cleared debris that was blocking the gems within the mountain. With the exception of a very few, all of us humans can access our emotions. All of us. Which means all of us can access empathy. What us white folks tend to refer to as empathy appears to merely be someone who leads with and interacts with the world first through emotion (soul/heart/spirit/etc.). It’s not that we have hidden insight that others can’t access, it’s that we pick up on the emotional aspects of things first before we pick up the whole scenario. We’re not magical. We don’t have mystical “gifts”. (I believe we all have gifts, or things we are exceptionally good at, innate to us. We all have our own special way of seeing the world to offer those around us. That’s not what I’m referring to.) We certainly may not interpret what we’re picking up correctly, either. Especially if it’s not ours to begin with. This gets to be a dangerous thing when white people believe they “know better” than the person they’re talking to (or let’s be honest, about). When we say things like, “I’m an empath so I’m feeling exactly what you’re feeling,” or, “As an empath I’m feeling what you are feeling even more than you do” it’s a violation of boundaries and trust. It’s not consensual. It’s definitely dismissive. As far as I can tell most of us who lead with emotion aren’t given the tools to learn how to regulate our emotions and connect them to the rest of our being (mind/body). So, when we hear something emotional from a friend it taps into our emotions and rather than being able to practice true empathy* in that moment, we are actually projecting our own unregulated emotional experiences onto the other person. Yikes. That was a hard realization to sit with. I am totally guilty of projecting and overstepping. Empathy is the ability to connect with another person’s experience by tapping into our own. For instance if someone is sad and sharing a sad experience with us, we tap into that knowledge that we hold of a time we were sad and it helps us understand the other person. To offer care. It may prompt us with resources and help should the person want it. It’s about connection. The other person still remains centered. Empathy allows us to keep that person centered while deeply connecting to them if that is consensual and desired by both parties. It allows us to see another’s experience and connect to it in a way that fosters trust, love, and community. That’s very different than what I see it being used as in a lot of white circles. I’ve heard many people (myself included) say things like, “I told them but they just weren’t ready to hear my message.” That’s always felt off to me but it’s what I’ve known so I went with it. Now I understand why it feels off. It’s invasive, rude, manipulative, and non-consensual. I inserted my opinions about someone else’s life and then attempted to hold them accountable for not following what I thought was best for them. Gross. Potentially dangerous. I would love to see those of us (white people of all genders and non genders) who are empathically led do the work of learning emotional regulation. We do have gifts to share. We can use our deep emotional connections to help others connect to their emotions. IF THEY WANT TO. We have the ability to be teachers and guides to those who struggle to connect emotionally. The same way they have the ability to help us connect with our minds and bodies. God knows I’ve needed my friends and peers who have healthy body connections to help me connect to mine. It may be last on the list but at least I recognize it’s on the list now. We live in a time when our bodies are parceled out and the medical field struggles to understand what we need with our mental health and mental health professionals don’t necessarily have the tools to deal with physical disabilities. We don’t see ourselves holistically and this is devastatingly American white culture. We are whole and complete. Our emotions impact our physical bodies. What happens to our bodies impacts our emotions. Ongoing physical pain can impact our ability to think and reason. Panic attacks (physical symptoms) influence our emotions and vice versa. It’s all us. We have the ability to live wholly if we help and listen to each other and ourselves. As I write this, and as I was processing all of this, I recognize that others have understood this and explained it prior to me and better than me. I’m pretty positive they even tried to explain it to me. This is not new information. This is as old as humans. It’s about getting back to what we knew versus what we’re being fed now. I also know that this topic is way more nuanced than this and welcome new learning and understanding. I’m glad that I know myself and my family better and we plan on using this model to help each other learn and build stronger connections. We grow when we’re met where we are and how we are. I cannot truly learn anything unless I understand it emotionally. That’s when the pieces really start moving. I may experience something through my body or mind first but it’s not sticking until I connect to it emotionally. That is neither good nor bad. It just is. This understanding of myself is exciting and I believe it will help me find ways to learn that work for me. It has also helped me gain a deeper love and appreciation for those who don’t lead with emotions and why we seem to talk past each other. We’re all empathic. Some of us simply approach it differently and take a little longer to get there.
•This is my first post done entirely on my phone. It’s not formatted the way I like but it’s a good learning experience.
* If you’re looking for a place to start understanding empathy Brené Brown is a good resource. Empathy Illustration Is a quick video introduction.