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How emotional awareness and empathy will overcome stress

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Gina wanted to scream. The pandemic had turned her world inside out. As a working single mother of a son, 11, and a daughter, 8, her normal life had routine and a measured pace. Now, instead of getting the children off to school and then heading to work, they were all “sheltering in place” in their apartment and she was working from home. To make her life even more challenging, her sister, Rose, had moved in because she had lost her job. 

Gina, her children and Rose were all getting more and more upset with each other. As the days dragged by, she had her work to do, homework to help out with, and a sister to keep busy. It was taking a toll on her and everyone else.

Developing emotional awareness and empathy 

To improve her management skills, Gina had been reading about emotional awareness and how it could be applied to her work team. As she learned more about understanding her own emotions as well as empathetically understanding the emotions of others, she began to see how this might be helpful in her own family. 

During one of her frequent calls with her colleague Larry about their current project, she told him that the stress of living so close was “driving her crazy.” In response, Larry shared how he had used the principles of emotional awareness and empathy to deal with a similar family situation. 

To explain, Larry asked Gina to remember an experience in which she felt mad about something. Gina quickly remembered an incident when she had asked her sister to watch the children while she did work for her job. Fifteen minutes later, she heard her children arguing about what to watch on TV. Gina felt sure that Rose simply did not care enough to give her a couple of hours of peace. She was furious. 

Larry asked Gina to identify the five primary feelings fueling her anger. He explained that whenever we are mad, sad or anxious, one or more of the following basic feelings always trigger these emotions. Larry asked if she had felt:

  • Accused — We feel accused when we think someone is blaming or criticizing us. However, we can also feel accused when we accuse ourselves and this is much more common than feeling accused by others. 
  • Guilty — We feel this primary feeling when we think we did something wrong or we failed to do something we thought we should have done. 
  • Rejected — We feel rejected if we think we have been excluded, scorned, dismissed, demeaned, ignored or rebuffed. We can also feel rejected when we go against our own values, which happens when we do something that is not aligned with our standards.
  • Unlovable — This primary feeling occurs in close personal relationships when we feel unworthy to be loved. Because we care deeply about our most important relations, it seems like extreme rejection. Feeling unworthy of love is an intense feeling. 
  • Powerless — This is the other particularly intense feeling. It occurs when we feel incapable, defenseless, vulnerable or helpless. We cannot stand to feel powerless for long, and so we quickly try to regain our power. 

All of these primary feelings occur in microseconds and they only last a few moments. Because they happen so quickly, we are not consciously aware of them. However, when we reflect on any incident that caused us to be mad, sad or anxious, we can always recognize that we first felt accused, guilty, rejected, unlovable or powerless, or some combination of these feelings. 

To remember these underlying feelings, we use the acronym based on the first letter of each primary feeling — AGRUP. By becoming award of these AGRUP feelings, Larry told Gina about the four-step process he used to develop empathy.

The “CARE” approach

  1. Consider my AGRUP feelings

Larry asked Gina to consider which of these feelings she felt when her sister had not taken care of the children. She said that she felt rejected because Rose had disregarded her wishes. In addition, she said she felt unlovable because, “If she really loved me, she would have done what I asked her.” She also felt powerless because she lost valuable time in resolving her children’s argument that she could have spent getting her work done.

As she realized what she was saying, Gina began to understand how unreasonable this sounded. Larry mentioned that the vast majority of our mad, sad or anxious emotions are based on an inadequate understanding of ourselves, particularly when we feel accused, guilty, rejected, unlovable and/or powerless. 

When we fail to fully understand ourselves, then we also fail to acknowledge the fundamental truth of who we are — our true nature.

2. Acknowledge my true nature 

The concept of understanding our true nature can be demonstrated by how we would respond to an injured person who needed our assistance. We would want to help them. This is an example of our true nature. It is central to who we are because we care about others. 

Our true nature should never be disregarded. Periodically, we need to acknowledge — “I am caring.” Gina considered knew that she was a caring person. Larry discussed a number of incidents that Gina had shared about others she loved and cared about. Then Larry asked her, “Doesn’t this demonstrate that you care about others and want the best for them? Isn’t this your true nature?”

If we acknowledge our true nature more often, we sustain ourselves as caring individuals. Gina was about to learn how to do this through empathy.

3. Respond with empathy

Larry asked Gina to recall again when she had asked her sister to watch the children. Then he asked, “How do you think Rose felt when she learned that you were upset with her?” Gina remembered how hurt she had been. But Larry particularly wanted to know which of the five primary AGRUP feelings Gina thought her sister had experienced.

Gina said that she was very sure that Rose had felt accused. She was less certain if she felt guilty for not watching the children. However, she was convinced that she felt rejected and unlovable. She also recognized how powerless Rose must have felt for trying to do something positive that had turned out badly, and she had felt helpless to stop Gina’s anger.

Envisioning Rose’s emotions enabled Gina to empathize with her. When she did this, her perception of this experience completely changed. Now that she better understood Rose, she was then able to to explore possible resolutions.

4. Explore our mutual best interests

After she considered her own AGRUP feelings, acknowledged her true nature and responded with empathy to understand Rose’s feelings, Gina learned how to create new, more constructive results. We do this by creating a solution that would work for both the other person and ourselves. For example, Gina had not apologized to Rose for getting angry about “not watching the children.” She now saw that an apology could benefit Rose and would also be worthwhile for herself. 

Gina also recognized that she needed to develop ways to avoid these kinds of misunderstandings in the future. She decided to apologize and then talk over how they could more effectively communicate to better understand each other’s thoughts and feelings. 

Creating our mutual best interests requires individuals to genuinely understand each other. True partnering produces better interactions and more effective outcomes. 

Sometimes coming up with a solution for both individuals is difficult, or requires time to cool down. Even in these circumstances, we can still use this “mutual best interests” approach. For example, while we wait, we can change an unhappy thought or offer a silent expression of caring. We each have many opportunities to show that we care.

A Summary of “CARE”

To review:

  1. Consider my AGRUP feelings — Did I feel accused, guilty, rejected, unlovable, powerless, or some combination of these underlying primary feelings? 
  2. Acknowledge my true nature — I remember that I am caring and I am worthy to be loved.
  3. Respond with empathy — How did the other person feel? Did he or she feel accused, guilty, rejected, unlovable, powerless, or some combination of these feelings? 
  4. Explore our mutual best interests — What can I do to create a better, win-win outcome that truly works for both of us?

All of us can develop the skill of empathy. When we do this, we connect more fully with others and we more fully understand our own feelings. Gina learned how to make this approach a regular aspect of improving all of her relationships.

As we develop greater emotional awareness and empathy, we see ourselves as increasingly worthy, acceptable and capable. The counter to our AGRUP feelings always occurs when we understand ourselves and others. Whenever we act positively, our AGRUP feelings dissolve because they are replaced with the WAC feelings of worthy, acceptable and capable. 

After Gina apologized, Rose said she was sorry for not doing more to help out. They realized that emotional awareness and empathy could help them resolve the strains of their close living conditions. Rose thought it would be a good idea to talk every day about their feelings and how they could work together to make the best of their circumstances. While they still had problems and stresses, they resolved their concerns sooner and more successfully.

There are few simple answers to the tensions we face during this health crisis. But despite the challenges, we can not only weather this storm, we can become more effective in our relations. By daily practicing self-awareness of our feelings and empathy for others, we will prevail.

Gray Otis is a licensed clinical mental health counselor and consultant (gray_otis@yahoo.com). Sandi Williams is a licensed marriage and family therapist (sandi@themeadowscounseling.com). They are co-authors of “Key Core Beliefs: Unlocking the HEART of Happiness & Health” (www.KeyCoreBeliefs.org)