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Confessions of an Emotionally Disconnected Mind: Navigating the Journey to Empathy

By May 1, 2024May 2nd, 2024No Comments

I have a confession to make.

As a human, I’m not always empathetic or emotionally attuned to others. 😢😳

Identifying with the emotions of another person requires time, wisdom, practice, and persistence.

Let me illustrate.

Your teenage daughter bursts into the door after school, throws her backpack across the room, races to her bedroom, and slams the door. You’ve just finished your fifth Zoom meeting of the day, the dog vomited all over the new carpet in the living room, and you still have a difficult call with your co-worker to navigate. The last thing you want to deal with is a hyper-emotional teenager.

Taking a deep breath, you walk to your daughter’s room and ask if you can come in. After some prodding, she opens the door. One look at her blotchy face and you sit down on the bed, steeling yourself to listen with patience.

As she talks, you miss pieces of her story because your mind drifts to the co-worker conversation yet to happen. When she pauses, you whip out something like, “I’m sorry that happened. But maybe if you hadn’t . . .” In those few words, you dismiss her feelings and cause more pain, which was the last thing you wanted to do.

Responses like this happen when we aren’t mentally and emotionally engaged with another person. I’ve learned the hard way about the importance of fully engaging my mind, heart, and emotions when listening to others.

As a betrayed spouse or the betrayer, part of your recovery process invites you to develop empathy and emotional attunement.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share another person’s feelings. It means engaging with someone’s point of view, even if it is different from your own. This skill allows you to connect with others more than sympathize with them. I look at it as the choice to walk alongside another without trying to fix them.

You weren’t born with empathy.

It is a skill you learn as you progress through life. At least it’s one skill that is good to learn, though not everyone does. Children learn this skill by watching you as a parent. Have you ever noticed a young child quickly comforting a family member or another friend when that person seems upset? The comforter has observed their parent doing the same thing at some point. They’re well on the way to becoming empathetic.

During recovery, the betrayed spouse struggles to understand what happened, let alone look at the betrayer’s point of view. Initially, the betrayer might feel like their spouse continues to condemn them. But as Carol the Coach points out, the AVR approach helps men especially “do a read” on their spouse’s feelings and perspective. Like all new things, learning empathy takes practice.

Dave and I struggled to put ourselves in each other’s shoes.

Dave felt overwhelming shame over his choices and actions. While he knew he hurt me, initially he believed it was only his problem. Once he tuned in to the pain those choices caused me, he began practicing empathy.

Meanwhile, I wallowed in my pain and disgust. Like Dave, I believed it was his problem and he could “get over it.”

Spoiler alert: an addict doesn’t “get over it” in one decision.

I learned empathy the more I understood addiction.

Dave didn’t get a pass on the consequences, but I discovered I could come alongside him in recovery. It’s a difficult non-linear process.

A few days ago, Dave didn’t say much most of the day. To look at him, he seemed sad. After a while, I finally asked him if he didn’t feel good or was struggling with something. At first, he said he was okay, just thinking about a lot of things. Later in the day, when I asked if I had done something to upset him, he poured out his inner struggle. Thankfully, I listened, asked good follow-up questions, and then validated his feelings. Throughout the conversation, I realized I couldn’t make the situation better for him, nor did he expect me to. He simply needed to talk it through when he was ready.

Emotional attunement allows you to “[be] aware of and [empathize] with someone’s feelings and emotional needs.”

As I read this linked article, one comment startled me, “the best way to get better at giving and receiving emotional attunement is to become more in tune with your own feelings.”

One of my coaches worked with me to identify, acknowledge, and accept my emotions, which was uncomfortable. I learned through several coaching sessions on attunement that my emotions weren’t wrong. They just were my emotions. When I denied them, the issues seemed to grow. However, by acknowledging my emotions, I felt validated. Then my rational brain, the prefrontal cortex, got to work solving the issue. An interesting side effect? Many of these emotional struggles felt less overwhelming. Why? I validated my feelings rather than pushing past them.

The more I’ve learned about emotional attunement, the easier it is to pick up on Dave’s unspoken signals and he on mine.

Yesterday was “one of those days.” I had several deadlines to meet but struggled with various tech glitches throughout the entire day. When Dave came home after work, he listened to my frustration. Without saying a word, he put his arms around me and held me. Eventually, as we talked through some of the tasks, he asked if he could run an errand for me to take care of one of them. Fifteen minutes later, I had one completed deadline. But more important than meeting the deadline was that I felt heard and validated. The struggle was real, and Dave acknowledged it.

Look at how well you practice empathy and emotional attunement.

When was the last time you experienced someone extending empathy or emotional attunement to you? Journal about this experience. Identify what you felt, learned, and appreciated during that interaction.

How well do you express empathy or emotional attunement for yourself and others?

What holds you back? How would practicing empathy enhance your marriage relationship? What do you need to build your empathy muscle and capacity?

Need help? Let’s talk.

  • Kirsten D Samuel

    I empower Christian wives to discover they are seen, loved, and heard. These women find the freedom to be who they are beyond their partner’s struggles, and find hope that there is a life worth living.