Dear Ivy: Empathize

My Dear Ivy,

How does it work, this thing we talked about yesterday: Holding onto your self with security and serenity, knowing who you are and why you are valuable, while caring deeply and giving generously to the people you love?

There’s a word for this: Empathy.

One of my favorite philosophers, Marshall Rosenberg, describes empathy as, “a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing.” That’s a simple definition, but a powerful one, first and foremost because it tells us several things about what empathy is not

Empathy is not: “I feel your pain.” That’s sympathy.

Empathy is not: “Here’s what your problem is,” or “here’s what I think you should do.”

Empathy is not: “I agree with you.” or “I accept that what you’re saying is objectively true.”

Empathy is not: “It’s my fault,” or “I will fix it for you.”

Empathy is not: “Here’s how that makes me feel.”

Empathy is not: “I see what you mean on an intellectual level.”

Empathy is simply: “I hear you.”

Not, “I hear that you’re saying words right now” . . . “I hear you.”

It means being present with someone, doing your best to understand, not what their words and thoughts and feelings and emotions mean to you, but what they mean to them. It means hearing someone in their own voice, not in yours. It means hearing them with no “ifs, ands, or buts.”

“I hear you, if . . .”
“I hear you, and . . .”
“I hear you, but . . .”

These are not empathy.

So you’re aware, this empathy stuff is really, really, really hard. We all have our own thoughts and feelings and beliefs and opinions, and it’s incredibly difficult not to impose those on a conversation with another person, even when we’re trying (and most of us, most of the time, are not trying). I, for one, am quite bad at this, as you probably know by the time you read this letter. I do try – sometimes – but I fail more often than not.

But this is the answer to that question we talked about in my last letter, and at the start of this one: How do you hold onto yourself while truly, deeply, loving another person enough to share that self with them?


Because empathy allows you to hear someone – really, truly hear them – without requiring that you agree with them, or fix them, or even truly understand them. True empathy doesn’t require that you give up your self. It simply requires that you accept another self for what and who they are – rather than what and who you want them to be.

As Rosenberg puts it: “Empathy lies in our ability to be present without opinion.”

Or even more succinctly: “Don’t just do something, be there.”

Note that this doesn’t mean you have to give up your own desires, opinions, or beliefs. What it means is learning how to be there for someone, fully and completely, without demanding that they give up theirs.

That is how you hold on to your self, while at the same time offering your self to another person in love.

I wish I was better at it than I am, and my hope for you is that you will be better at it than me. But in the meantime, while I won’t always do it well, know that I will always be trying to work through this with you, loving and empathizing and hearing and knowing you for who you are, rather than trying to turn you into my own mental image of who you should be.

Because it’s not my own thoughts and opinions and beliefs about what makes a good person, that I love. It’s not some imagined individual who conforms to the ideal of the person I want you to be.

It’s you. I love you.


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