Empathy and the ability to feel your feelings

Cathy Adams Dear Girls 1 Comment


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We were built to feel our feelings, even when feelings don’t feel very good.

Anger, sadness, feeling left out – not enjoyable. But we all know these feelings intimately, they come and go throughout our lives.

They are wonderful teachers, offering an appreciation for the happier moments and calmer times.

They also create a sense of compassion and empathy for others. We recognize and relate to the pain and struggle that all people feel.

Every feeling, even the less-than-desirable ones, are purposeful. They direct us, remind us, wake us up.

Sadness can be grounding, fear can help us pay attention and refocus, and anger and shame can alert us that boundaries have been crossed.

But we have to be willing to feel feelings to get their signals. Author Mary Pipher once said, “The only thing worse than feeling pain is not feeling pain”.

Yet too many people avoid pain, believing it’s intolerable.

They numb, pretend, get extra busy and over-productive.

But the secret to life is being able to tolerate and move through difficult feelings. Wisdom is knowing you are built to endure what you feel.

But you don’t need to do it alone. Our brains were constructed to understand others, to literally feel and relate to what others experience.

This means we were created to help each other.

When your brain says you must go it alone and that no one will understand, that’s fear talking. It’s lying to you.

Becoming OK again depends on your ability to depend on other people.

Choose your people wisely. Share with people who care deeply for you.

And if someone you love is hurting, help them. Do for them what they do for you. Don’t get focused on fixing anything, just show up and care.

This is intimacy, this is empathy. And empathy is not limited to human beings.

Last week I was walking down the street with a friend when a baby bird dropped out of a nest and fell at our feet. The fall was crippling; the baby bird was not OK.

We looked up and saw the mama screeching. She couldn’t do anything. We couldn’t do anything.

All that was left to do was feel.

People around us kept moving. Some of them looked and moved quicker, some pretended they didn’t see it at all.

But we did see it, and without even discussing it, my friend watched the baby as she was dying, saying out loud that it would soon be over, that the struggle wouldn’t last.

And I stood and listened to that mama, feeling her pain, understanding.

In minutes it was over. The baby passed, the mama eventually became silent.

Sometimes that’s all we can do. We show up and we feel – for people, animals, our planet.

Sometimes our feelings lead to something more, a movement that creates awareness and leads to change.

This is our gift, the capacity to feel and understand everything that is alive. This is what brings meaning to our lives and reminds us we are needed.

Sometimes you will feel the weight of this world, like you are the only one feeling. There will be times when it can feel like too much to bear.

But trust how you were created, trust your capacity, know you aren’t alone.

You will make it through, again and again. Your empathy will become fine-tuned and your capacity to help others will increase. Your worth and sense of belonging will deepen.

Empathy strips away the me vs you and brings us back to the us.

Because the day you were born you knew the us, you were the us.

Life is about getting back to the us over and over again, even when the world seems to tell a different story.

Feelings are the signposts and gateways to finding your way back. So allow them, look at them, decipher their messages.

They are meant to be felt so we remember.

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The Dear Girls Blog contains letters to my daughters about self-awareness and mindfulness. Type your email address in the subscription box to the right of this page. The list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.

About the Author

Cathy Adams

Cathy Cassani Adams, LCSW, CPC, CYT is the author of three books including the multiple award-winning Living What You Want Your Kids to Learn: The Power of Self-Aware Parenting. She co-hosts the internationally popular Zen Parenting Radio, and she’s co-creator of the annual Zen Parenting Conference. She’s a sought-after speaker and she teaches in the Sociology/Criminology Department at Dominican University. Cathy and her husband Todd are raising three girls.

Comments 1

  1. I love these posts. And I totally *GET* that they are letters to your daughters and why that’s meaningful. But, wow! When I read these – I feel like they need to be titled, “Dear World” or “Dear Humanity” or something.

    Talk about relevant, on par, simple, grounded, tangible and clear. I have enjoyed all of your writing and insight – but I think this is your greatest work yet!!!

    P.S. And I thank you for finishing those, “…had something I want to talk about but we ran out of time…” moments in the past few podcasts. Tee hee. I was the Carrie From CA who wrote the review about that and it has cracked me up hearing you reference it and then finish those thoughts. Aaaaah. I can breathe a sigh of relief and relax now… 🙂