I knew by the time I pulled the car up in front of this woman’s house to let her out that my troubled insecure attachment empathy circuits were in disarrayed overload. I felt this woman’s pain – too much of her pain, too much of my own.
Nearly 24 hours later I am still thinking both about this lady and her troubles and about my own. I am also considering one of my old blog posts about how empathy, to work properly as we mature, must include the ability to clearly process consciously what we are experiencing when we are confronted with another person’s feelings be they “good” or difficult emotions.
Monkey’s (and other animals) and infants, toddlers, preschoolers all feel empathy and all react in some way when confronted with another’s emotional states. Given the neuronal basis of empathy we are supposed to clearly know as we age that “the other” is the basis of what we are currently feeling ourselves. Our own state is not supposed to become uselessly overloaded and dysregulated in response. THEIR pain = NOT our pain!
Yesterday I clearly knew I was feeling way, way too much of MY OWN pain in the presence of the woman whose story I include briefly below. My state was dysregulated by contamination of emotion and trauma that did not really belong in this interaction. Adults who were raised with safe and secure attachment in their earliest months and years of life do not experience that kind of intense overload caused by the confusion on a neuronal level of “Whose pain is this?”
“Both empathic and forgivability judgements activated left superior frontal gyrus, orbitofrontal gyrus and precuneus. Empathic judgements also activated left anterior middle temporal and left inferior frontal gyri, while forgivability judgements activated posterior cingulate gyrus. Empathic and forgivability judgements activate specific regions of the human brain, which we propose contribute to social cohesion.”
From: Investigating the functional anatomy of empathy and forgiveness
Farrow TF, Zheng Y, Wilkinson ID, Spence SA, Deakin JF, Tarrier N, Griffiths PD, Woodruff PW
Neuroreport, 2001, Aug 8;12(11): 2433-8
There are more notes from my research at this link
This is one of the most personally helpful and important articles I found in my research:
Individual Differences in Empathy Among Preschoolers: Relation to Attachment History
By Roberta Kestenbaum, Ellen A. Farber, L. Alan Sroufe
New Directions for Child Development
Vol 44, 1989, 51-64
There is a difference between compassion, care and concern and the existence and operation of true, healthy empathy. This fact was brought back to my attention yesterday because of this:
July 11, 2013. I noticed a woman pacing with great concern looking down one street and then down another when I arrived at the food co-op yesterday. I suspected she was waiting for and looking for the city bus. After I finished my shopping this woman was standing by a pole studying the posted bus schedule. I could FEEL as if she was screaming at the top of her lungs that this woman was greatly distressed. I called out to her offering to drive her wherever she was going.
We introduced as I opened the passenger side door of my car, yet as we shook hands and as I heard her speak her name – I did not HEAR her name. I was gathering a different kind of information.
I will call this woman Marcie, and as I cleared my purchased merchandise from my morning errands from the seat she told me today was her birthday. I wished her happy birthday, yet after we were both seated in the car buckling our seatbelts Marcie continued, “I am 55 today,” as she began to cry.
I knew without any doubt that I was in the presence of one of the saddest people I have ever met. She maybe weighed 80 pounds, crooked teeth, an ugly scar with a chunk missing from the tip of her left nostril. In her eyes I had seen a haunted tunnel of troubles that I knew traveled back to the day she was born – if not before.
“I had to get to court for my arraignment this morning and something is wrong with the buses today. They are not running on time. I saw the bus go by earlier but he did not pull into this stop.”
True to my perceptions the tale that unfolded from this small troubled woman over the 15 minutes it took to wind through town to her home was a tale of woe. I cannot and will not verify its accuracy or its truth. But the clarity, the absolute frustration and pain in this woman’s words gave me no reason to doubt her.
Marcie had gotten off of the bus near her home on a hot, hot day last week and due to her medical conditions had fallen to the pavement in the middle of the busy Naco Highway as she was crossing it. Her cane had not been enough to keep her standing and it was not enough to help her get up.
A Border Patrol officer (we are on the Mexican-American border) stopped. He had called the police. Two arrived very quickly.
Nobody helped Marcie get up although she had begged them to. She had also begged the two policemen standing near her drinking from their own water bottles for a drink. They laughed at her lying on the ground and poured their water out onto the hot pavement in front of her.
Marcie was harassed, humiliated, shamed, mistreated and then arrested for public endangerment and drunk and disorderly conduct. I didn’t hear how she was released a few days later but she told me her cane and other personal belongings were not returned to her.
This woman told me she had worked at our local Safeway market for eight years, but a few years ago both her mother and father died in the same month, the month she was divorcing her abusive husband of 20 years. She admits she turned to street drugs in her despair and had run-ins with the law which has left her with a “reputation” as Marcie put it, that has nothing whatsoever to do with the truth that she has been completely clean and sober for a year now.
Marcie was still talking, still crying, still apologizing for her tears as I pulled up in front of her house and as she climbed out of my car. I had repeated to her several times how important I think it is that she write down her entire account of what happened that day from the moment she got off of the bus. She told me she had pled not guilty, did not have an attorney and that the police report is inaccurate. Then she walked away.
I was troubled for the next 8 hours from this encounter and from my reaction to it. I know enough to know that my empathy processes were prevented from developing normally by my extensive abuse and trauma experiences in childhood. I wanted to go back to take Marcie out for a birthday dinner. I wanted to take my laptop to her house, have her tell me her entire account as I typed it up for her. I wanted to rescue, save, fix her sadness. I wanted to go to war with the Bisbee police department.
I could not separate Marcie’s pain from my own. I therefore could not determine what the healthiest response would be in this situation. This left me with great internal conflict and turmoil that I did not know how to resolve.
Finally in conversation last evening with my (dead) mother’s long-term friend in Alaska, Joe Anne Vanover, I was able to ask for her perspective on my conundrum. Joe Anne is one of the most healthy, safely and securely attached person from birth I have ever met. She assured me that I had exactly done my part and that I can do no more.
As a sideline in this conversation with this amazingly healthy 83-year-old I listened to her perspective on choice that leads to troubles in our adult life. She believes the troubles happen because people choose “to take the easy rather than the hard way” through situations. She used the example of becoming involved with people we know are not healthy only to later end up with suffering that would have been avoided if we had temporarily suffered through any difficulty we might have faced if we had turned THEN to walk away.
I didn’t try in this conversation to explain to Joe Anne that people who never had safe and secure attachment and suffered from trauma all of their childhoods do not have the same kind of resources and resiliency that someone like her does.
I heard her point. No matter what and no matter why, we do make choices between available options. In any case nobody who has fallen to the pavement deserves to be treated so despicably as it sounds like Marcie was. I pray for her and I hope she writes her detailed version of what happened that day. I pray for justice which in itself is ALWAYS divine. There is no other form of justice for any of us.
I am also reminded of one of the passages in the spiritual writings I live by that I have pondered many, many times:
“If ye meet the abased or the down-trodden, turn not away disdainfully from them, for the King of Glory ever watcheth over them and surroundeth them with such tenderness as none can fathom except them that have suffered their wishes and desires to be merged in the Will of your Lord, the Gracious, the All-Wise. O ye rich ones of the earth! Flee not from the face of the poor that lieth in the dust, nay rather befriend him and suffer him to recount the tale of the woes with which God’s inscrutable Decree hath caused him to be afflicted. By the righteousness of God! Whilst ye consort with him, the Concourse on high will be looking upon you, will be interceding for you, will be extolling your names and glorifying your action. Blessed are the learned that pride not themselves on their attainments; and well is it with the righteous that mock not the sinful, but rather conceal their misdeeds, so that their own shortcomings may remain veiled to men’s eyes.” – from Gleanings From the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, Author: Bahá’u’lláh, Source: US Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1990 pocket-size edition, Page: 346
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