A Lesson in Circling Back


Practicing empathy is hard especially because we practice with people… people are complicated. There isn’t a dashboard displaying what we each need most at that very moment in time. No billboards above our heads flashing ‘I need empathy’. We gotta go with our gut and sometimes we miss an opportunity completely. That’s what happened to me a few months ago…

Imagine a group of eight Daring Way women sitting in a sunny room around a conference table. These women are as bright as the sun streaming through the windows and have come to the table knowing things are going to get personal. We were going around the table sharing an arena in our lives where we wanted to show up and be seen. I was next…

An Opportunity to Practice Empathy

Stepping waaaaay out on the vulnerability limb, I shared my maternal urge to show up for my 13-year-old son. He is not one of the ‘popular’ kids at school and he doesn’t have many close friends. He’ll come home and share some of the awful, hurtful things the boys say and do to him at school.

I know… he’s not a perfect angel and I understand… at this age, they’re jockeying for position. But it still breaks my heart.

His situation hits home for me because I have been there. I can empathize with him and feel somewhat responsible. Let’s call it ‘sins of the mother’. I bear the blame because we probably didn’t have enough sleep-overs when he was in elementary. I feel the shame because I’m not part of the parents’ ‘in-crowd’. I failed him because I didn’t help him navigate the friendship waters better.

The women in the group started grilling me and giving me suggestion after suggestion. They told me how I should handle the situation and strong advice about what I should do. Honestly, my husband and I had already tried everything they suggested. At one point, one of the women looked at her neighbor, pointed at me, and said, “I know you’ve got something to say about this…” inviting her to share her thoughts.

The more they talked, the more I felt like a complete failure. My armor went up, I physically shut down, and withdrew.

The ironic part… we were learning about empathy and how to practice it. We were learning about how to take another’s perspective and stand in a no-judgment zone, about how to connect with someone’s emotions, and communicate those emotions.

The group leader saw what was happening, stopped the conversation, and asked if I had been feeling any empathy from the group. Frankly, I was a little dazed and caught up in my own shame storm to understand what had just happened… or not happened. ‘Well… now that you mention it… no.’

Stinging from the attack and holding my shame shield high, I didn’t show up to the group for the next two weeks.

The group leader, a wonderful, insightful, caring woman, called me to talk through what happened. I expressed my feelings of being attacked and feeling let down by the group. She said this was part of the learning process when doing ‘the work’ around shame and how we need to respond with empathy when someone is brave enough to share their story. Yes… I was learning about shame by experiencing it publicly and yes, I wanted to experience empathy in order to combat that shame. She invited me back and suggested we ‘circle back’ (Brené’s words) as a group and revisit what we all missed in this lesson.

When I reluctantly rejoined the group, the leader opened up by asking if there was anything we, as a group, needed to ‘circle back’ about. She was giving us a second chance to practice empathy.

Feeling justified because I was the one being ganged up on, I didn’t say a word. I was waiting for them to circle back with me. I was waiting for them to apologize for not being empathic towards me. However, no one thought there was anything to circle back on. ‘Nope… we’re fine’ was the response.

Dejected and defeated, I didn’t participate and skipped the next session.

A-ha Moment

Speed ahead a couple of months to Brené’s online Living Brave class and the lesson on empathy. I answered the same workbook questions we were posed with as an in-person Daring Way group, only this time; I had an experience to reflect on.

While connecting these two points in time, I had a moment of clarity.

I realized that if I put myself out there, share something very personal and the person I’m sharing with doesn’t respond empathically, I am the one that needs to circle back if they don’t.

When given the opportunity in the group, I should’ve been the one to say, “You know… I shared something a few weeks ago and I felt attacked and judged. I know you probably meant for it to be helpful but it was hurtful and I’d like to talk about that…” Instead, I was holding my armor, placing the blame on them, isolating myself, and licking wounds that would never go away if I didn’t ‘circle back’.

This responsibility lies squarely on my shoulders. If true, authentic connection is the goal, I needed to interrupt the shame storm long enough to ask for the empathy I sought. It takes a lot of guts to circle back… guts and the understanding I didn’t have at the time.

The Happy Ending

The last Daring Way group session was a final project where we would share what we learned in a creative way. I didn’t want to go to the last session. I didn’t want to share anything more with these women who I didn’t think cared about me. If they did, they would’ve been more empathic.

Even though I refused to go to this final session, I felt I owed it to myself to journal what I felt in my heart in order to internalize what I learned. So I wrote a letter to the group leader.

I wrote about where and how shame showed up in my life. I wrote about my family. I wrote what my inner voice said. I wrote about my experience with the group. I placed blame. I ranted and raved. I cried and I sulked. And then I realized that what I had just written is what Brené calls my shitty first draft (SFD). My SFD sounded like a two-year-old throwing a temper tantrum.

As I continued to write, I decided that I needed to continue this work because the lessons, which were right in front of my face, were coming slowly. I was in the Daring Way group to do the work but when the work got tough, I placed blame and isolated… just like I always did. The easy part of doing the work was recognizing my shame triggers. The hard part of doing the work was avoiding old habits and making the conscious, courageous choice to act differently based upon what I was learning. Doing the work of shame, vulnerability, courage, self-compassion, and empathy has become an arena in my life.

I owed it to myself to show up at the last session. I owed it to these women to show up at the last session. But showing up physically wasn’t enough… I had to show up and be seen.

Despite doing what I knew was right, I went to the last group session very reluctantly. The whole time I was sitting there, I felt like I was going to puke. There was small talk and one by one, we all started to share our final projects. My final project was my SFD.

Second to the last… it was my turn. I was about to get vulnerable and it wasn’t going to be pretty. Knowing I was going to get emotional and cry made matters worse. I didn’t want these women to see me like this. For Pete’s sake, I’m a strong woman who is always in control of her emotions! Making it through the tears and runny nose, I read every last word I wrote in my SFD.

These gracious, caring, daring women showed up in full force with empathy.

They felt my story, understood my shame, and did not stand in judgment. They laughed with me and cried with me. We made a connection. We circled back and I was the one that needed to take the first step. Yes… circling back when you feel like you’ve been hurt is walking through vulnerability twice. For me, though, it was a big part of doing the work. For the first time in my life, I broke the shame cycle and we all learned about practicing empathy.

Two Lessons on Empathy

There are two lessons I’ve learned about empathy over these last few months:

1) We need to understand what empathy is and practice it.

2) We need to tell people when and how we want them to be empathic.

The first lesson I shared in this previous post… that we need to understand and practice the four attributes of empathy.

The second lesson is that we have to help each other learn empathy. Empathy doesn’t come naturally. If we want to have a true connection with someone, we have to ask for empathy when we need it. And if we don’t get it when we need it? We have to suck it up and ‘circle back’.

We all want to receive empathy differently so we also need to share how we need it. Do you want someone to look you in the eye or look away so you don’t feel so self-conscious? Do you want a hug or need your personal space? Do you want them to simply listen or should they ask questions?

When we are brave and circle back to talk about how a conversation didn’t go the way we thought it would, empathy has a chance. And when empathy has a chance, even as a second chance, shame has no chance.

As Brené says, “Empathy is a strange and powerful thing… that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone’.”

Where do you need to circle back and either practice empathy or ask for empathy? I welcome your thoughts in the comments here or on my Facebook page.