Sunday, April 14, 2013

Empathy Moment

I was born with a misunderstood gift, and for a long time did not know what to do with it. It took time to see examples of its uses. Sometimes it is not used for good. Sometimes it isn't even used. Many people have it, use it and let it destroy them. It's so interesting to me when I encounter others with the gift because we are all at different places in our development of it. It makes me introspective about my journey with the gift, and how I've come to love it rather than be burdened by it. Those that have a grasp of it are using it for good, removing themselves from it, and are changing the world. It's something the world needs desperately, but because of how precarious and potentially self destructive it is, there is short supply. There are varying degrees of sensitivity to it, and varying degrees of use, and I don't believe there are many who haven't experienced it. I have this gift to a very large extent. Though for so long I didn't realize that it was a gift. I thought I was weak, broken, oversensitive and over emotional. I didn't realize that everyone didn't have it as deeply as I do.  I have since learned it, harnessed it and I struggle daily to tame its effects on my life.

The gift is empathy.  It is a superpower and a curse. It is a blessing and requires great responsibility.  It is nothing special to those who don't have it. It makes me passionate and creative. It makes me misunderstood. I always know who else has it. I watch the people around me suffer because they don't know what to do with it. I was taught how to manage my empathy inadvertently. I needed to develop thick skin to be a productive member of society, yet still hold on to my most valuable possession; the ability to feel what others feel.

The past looked like this: I felt everything. Deeply. Every word, look, criticism, thought, was personally felt. I could walk into a room and feel the energy of every person, and adversely, I can change the energy in a room with my own.  I felt connected to everything regardless of whether it was mine to connect to or not. When others were unhappy I owned those feelings, because I felt them, even when they were not mine to own. Another side of this effect is the ability to take criticism effectively. Criticism is a necessary part of growth, and a necessary part of becoming a better me, but when faced with it in the past all I could associate with was the disappointment felt by the other person in something I had done. Disappointment is the most difficult emotion for me to harbor because I have a need to please- 100% of the time.There was a time when I could not speak, write or think without considering how it will effect someone else. Even if it's just one person. It is not perfectionism, but the need to feel the other person's approval. It was not until I began to learn small lessons to handle the empathy that I was able to use my gift for good, help alter the energy in the room, and preserve my own heart.

I was once in a profession which required a set of emotional armor to make it through the day. If I was going to succeed and support my family, which I strongly desire in everything that I do, I was going to have to learn coping mechanisms for the empathy.  This profession involved a great deal of criticism, both personally and with the work that I was doing. The disappointment was overwhelming. Every time I had to feel the discontent of another coworker, client or superior, I felt torn down. For an empathetic person, that is demoralizing. But I don't hate my gift, and I don't want to be less of who I am, so I realized I need to work on embracing it.

Everything changed when I realized that I felt very strongly about one human characteristic- one that has quickly become the most important thing to me in a person that I associate with. Accountability. This word means many things in many different environments, but to me it is simple. Own yourself. Own your actions, thoughts, emotions, choices and consequences. Own the fact that you have free will and the world doesn't happen TO you. Decide to be true to yourself by accepting that you are not a victim. Bad things always occur, but in every set of circumstances is a series of choices.

The first lesson of accountability with regard to my empathy was that being offended by someone's words or actions is my choice. Just as it is the other person's choice to speak harshly, it is my choice to let it become me. I had to stop choosing to take on those feelings because they weren't mine to feel. We are human. We make mistakes. Many, many mistakes. And those mistakes will affect other people, but if we own those mistakes, we can alter the outcome.  I learned that I did not have to choose to be unhappy just because someone was unhappy with a choice I had made.  The hardest part about this lesson is that not everyone takes ownership for being offended. Someone along the way will choose to be offended by you for one reason or another, but that is not yours either. I had to practice putting up a "soul shield" which involves taking a deep breath and remembering that I have a choice to take on the burden of someone else's unhappiness. Being a person who craves approval, I always want to "right" a "wrong". It is my choice to do this in a manner that calms my heart. If I feel that I have affected someone in a way that makes ME unhappy, I will find a way to right it. But that is MY choice. I no longer do this because I feel the need to change their feelings to make myself feel better.

Just as I needed to take ownership, I needed to learn that others own themselves. Everyone has opinions, emotions and beliefs that are inherently their own. I cannot own someone's opinion. Therefore, other peoples' opinions of me are not my business. They are entitled to that. I don't need to know what they think because it is not mine.  It is an exercise to remove yourself from opinions that are shared. I feel the effect of peoples' opinions, but I do not need to become them. This is not something that comes easily to an empathetic person. Our culture uses opinions to define people, belief structures and general standards of society. It's difficult not to use common opinion to define ourselves. But those opinions are not ours to own. This skill set takes constant practice. I need to remove myself from other peoples' definitions of me constantly. I have my definition of me to own.

With years of practice, I have utilized these main coping skills in order to harness the power of empathy.  I hate negative energy. It is more difficult to be negative, and takes a lot out of me to feel it. Because I am now able to remove myself from the negative energy of others, I can hold on to the warmer emotions and project them. I don't try to heal the world, but I have become much better at diffusing a difficult situation because I no longer absorb tension, anger, frustration and sadness. I feel it, but I don't take it on.

It sounds ridiculous to say it out loud... I do sound like a self-proclaimed super hero, "absorbing/reflecting" energy, but the truth is, there just aren't words to describe what it's like. The world thinks I'm "too sensitive" and "over emotional", but I think people like me are necessary to balance the "insensitive" and "non-emotional" society we've built for ourselves. In every situation there are varying degrees of empathy because as humans, we balance out each others' gifts. People like me handle relationships when others around us cannot. People like me welcome in opinions and beliefs of everyone because we have learned that we don't own those.  People like me help keep light in dark places. And yes, I truly did try to sound like a super hero with that phrase...

I love my gift. I think it makes me feel too much all of the time. I think it makes it hard to just "have a good time". I believe that it enables me to make instant connections with people because of the unspoken transparency. I think it requires a certain skill set to tame empathy and use it for good without the price of my own emotional destruction. But I get to share an intimacy with all people because I can sense what they feel. I am sensitive to them, which makes me care. I respect that they own their feelings and opinions, but I get to share that with them. I get to project warmth and welcome in places that are cold and difficult. I create environments for people to be themselves because I do not own who they are. I struggle with it, but I continue to work at it because it makes me who I am, and I want to keep becoming a better person.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Unplanned Moment

"Life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans." -John Lennon

We weren't looking for any of it. We had a plan. It wasn't a terrific plan, but it was a plan: Move to Colorado so David's mother could help us get on our feet while he went to school. With the exception of the greatest friendships in the world, things in Illinois had begun to deteriorate. We kept trying to put band-aids over the wounds of the life we'd tried to build, but as with anything that isn't fixed at the foundation, it just crumbled. We were losing everything and had to do something about it.  We were so tired of fighting. We didn't have time for the things that were valuable to us becuase we spent so much time working uphill and nothing improved. Colorado, even though we were NOT looking to move, offered us a respite and a new start. We decided, amongst the pained protests of our loved ones, to move ahead because we love each other, and couldn't let the deterioration spread that deep.  Long story short, our journey anew began.

Within weeks, I had gotten a job, we were living with bare bones in his mother's basement, and he was registered for school.  I was not looking for anything else. We just needed to get our feet under us. I had resolved myself that I would do anything to just get solid...It's demoralizing to admit defeat. But here was our chance to prove that we have what it takes. After the recovery, of course. I wasn't looking for work, thankfully, as so many people we had left behind were, or knew people who were. Because I wasn't looking, it appeared. A month after I'd started at a job that I didn't love, but had willed myself to like, because that is how you do it when you have to, I received a call from the University of Northern Colorado, offering me the best thing to happen to us in a long time. It is here that I am finding my passions all over again. I have been inspired, moved, and educated daily. I find that I try to be here, and that I want to be ever more involved. I even went as far as hosting Evelyn's birthday party in the hall that I work in. It has opened doors that I didn't know I needed opened...

We weren't looking for our home. We're renting, which after the pain of loss that we've just experienced with the alternative, is PERFECTLY acceptable. I knew that this was the reality, and had been exploring options for relocation to Greeley, which is where I work, and where Evie goes to school, but I was not LOOKING. I mean, who wants to move around Christmas, in the winter? Well, the opportunity presented itself to me, and by happenstance, works out perfectly. It's a duplex, it's small, there are no trees. But for our purposes at the moment, it works. I am magnetically drawn to the East side of town, by the University, and coicidentally where everything else I love about Greeley is located, but because of other things that we weren't looking for presenting themselves, it works perfectly.  For the first time in my adult life, I work less than 15 minutes from my home. The sheer amount of time saved by being that close is unreal.

We weren't looking to be working on 2 different University campuses. David's amazing course of events that led him to his current occupation at Colorado State University was unexpected and very, very positive. We could never have imagined that we would be in the best financial and occupational situation that we could have hoped for. For the first time ever we had to CHOOSE how many benefits we wanted to utilize at any one time instead of praying that no one would get hurt because we didn't have health insurance. Because both of us work for higher education, we can both complete our education in whatever we choose, as we go along with jobs we already enjoy. The positions we hold are priceless. The impact that has on our lives is intangible and monumental. David is a different person with that kind of security... in truth, we both are.

We weren't looking to become heatlh-crazed. Ok... I'm still not stellar at it... and I'm not even going to pretend like I'm going to give up my appreciation for the fact that food is a gift. It's so much more than just nutrition for human beings, and I love that about our speicies. We bond over food, and I would never give that up, but I can be more aware of what I'm doing to myself. I woke up one morning and my hips hurt. I'm 33, and my hips hurt... from sleeping. It's a new mattress, a great new mattress, so it wasn't that. Nope- I'm in the worst shape of my life. A friend looked at me at work one day and said, "We should run a 5k." Now anyone who has ever known me has heard these words from me, and probably would have expected this as a response to this wonderful woman, "I don't run." But instead, I said, "OK"... What?!! Ok. I wasn't looking for a new lifestyle, but it found me anyway. That weekend I started walking, then jogging. When the snow didn't stop coming down, I decided that something more had to be done, so I took the madness indoors and became a gym rat.  I have never looked back. My body is fighting me- it has been predominantly sedentary for 33 years afterall, but I keep fighting back, with a fervor that I've never had. It's easy to be healthy out here. I'll never be a "runner" but I'm not opposed to being chased by zombies for 3 miles, or getting sprayed with colors, or any of the other fun runs out there...because for the first time, I think I can.

We weren't looking for a church. Seriously- we just wanted coffee. I suppose we had both been open to the idea, but with the constant state of flux that we've been in since June, when we moved out here, neither of us were set on seeking it out.  One day, I walked into John Galt coffee shop with my supervisor to get a cup of coffee and chat. I was immediately drawn to the art that was being displayed, the incredible coffee, and the fact that I could see myself hanging out with most of the people that were there.  Coincidentally, it was the same location that I had read about in an article outlining some of the best highlights in Greeley, Atlas Church.  I was committed to bringing David back there to experience the greatest cup of coffee that I'd had in ages... sorry Starbucks, nothing beats a true french press brew! Evelyn was at her theater class (on the East side of town) and we decided to pick up a joe while we waited. While we were there, Jeff Cook, who we didn't realize was the pastor of Atlas, struck up a conversation with Ronan (who was absorbed by Angry Birds), and we asked to see the theater part of the church. Two weeks later, we tried it out, and our souls were moved to the core. There are no words for this place.  Between the messages, aesthetics and music, we were blown away... but then, there were the PEOPLE. This super warm and welcoming group of people... and I don't just mean the pastor and his wife, Kelly, the whole place buzzed with warmth and welcome. We've met several people that I would be drawn to in any other setting as well. It's our kind of community... which is an instrumental and essential word. I chose it carefully. Community. I do not think that community and church are mutually exclusive. I believe it takes a special formula to create this integral and elusive environment. What's more, we didn't even know we needed a community...but it chose us. 

We didn't want to change the plan. I think upon every new presentation of opportunity we looked at each other and questioned if we should deviate from the plan. We changed so much for the plan. We left so much for the plan. But if I've found one thing about this journey that we're on, it's that our plans have not gotten us very far in the past, and it's time to follow God's and the universe's plan for us instead. Say yes to UNC, CSU, goofy Greeley, and an unexpected, immediate draw to this beautiful community.  I feel that we are here at a time in which the plan is being defined for us as we go, and it feels big. I've never felt this way. We still do our due dilligence to live the life of responsibility and expectation- we both go to work and give it everything, we put our kids in the schools we believe will help them grow, we are making healthy lifestyle changes, we go to bed at a decent hour (usually), we clean our home, we keep up with friends and family. But I've given up on the plan. We have big dreams that we will never give up on, but we've grown up so much since we let go, that I feel like it's now less plan, and more dreams. Life just keeps happening, even if we had other plans.