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To "E.R.R." Is Humane

A three-part formula for successful relationships.

by Bina Breitner

 

 

There's a simple formula for creating and sustaining good relationships. It works within yourself, with your children, your partner, your parents, or anyone else you love, and it can be boiled down to three elements, with the initials E.R.R.

The first letter stands for Empathy. The dictionary defines empathy as "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another." Whatever Bill is going through, or went through, with his drunken father, you get it. You have a sense of how it felt and feels to him. You understand his reaction to it. You have patience, you imagine his experience, and you take it — and him — seriously.

Your premise is that whatever happened to him matters, that his experience of it is valid. This is not the same as your saying, "Boy, I really understand that. When my father drank too much, I remember his yelling and how I felt...."

There is empathy in that response: You really understand it. But then you take it away. The subject is no longer Bill's experience; it's yours ("When my father..."). You've shifted into telling him about your experience. However much you understand what happened to Bill, you and he are not the same person. If you want to help him out, if you care for him, you need to let him process his experience with you at his side. You're there to support him, not to take on his feelings about his drunken dad for him.

One of my clients talked about "validation" as something she didn't get from her family. They were self-involved people, often mean to her and her sister. Since they didn't "see" what she was going through, even when she was raped, she felt invisible, invalid.

(Her mother's response was, "Don't tell your daddy. He'll kill the guy and then he'll go to jail." That might have been true, but it was unrelated to my client's experience of being raped. She didn't get one second of empathy before the meaning of events was taken away from her, shifted into another perspective.)

Empathy includes validation. If you're empathetic, you listen to her experience, understand it, and sit with it. If you didn't think her feelings were valid, you wouldn't be paying that much attention to them.

Notice that the core value of the empathy is that you are taking her and her experience seriously. This doesn't have to mean that you think hers was the appropriate response, or that you would respond the same way. You may find it odd, surprising or really off-base. But if you care for her, you start with whatever she feels, or felt, because empathy is about her. Not about you.

At some point you can suggest a different interpretation or ask her some questions to broaden her understanding of what she's been through. But if you don't start with empathy, the conversation is over. She'll recognize that either you don't understand her experience, or you don't consider her feelings important, and she'll withdraw from her connection to you. Even if she stays around physically, she's gone.

 

The second letter stands for Reassurance. When Bill's father drank, he became loud, unpredictable, judgmental, impatient and physically abusive. He was out of control. Bill was scared.

Especially in the moment, Bill needed reassurance. He wasn't at all sure he'd survive each episode. His mother wasn't any help, because she was frightened, too, and all of her focus was on calming her husband — or at least not further setting him off.

Bill's need for reassurance went unmet for years, until his dad's brother and family moved to the same town. Uncle Roger was a steady, kind man, who saw what was going on and talked to Bill. He told Bill he understood how scary it was for him when his father drank. He put his hand on Bill's shoulder and told him he was going to be OK. Time would pass; he'd get through this. It was terrible, but Bill could always call Uncle Roger or go over to his house. He wasn't alone. And if things got really unsafe, Bill would be taken out of range.

Clearly Uncle Roger was aware of how Bill felt: he empathized with Bill's distress. If he hadn't — if he'd just told Bill to be a little man and things would turn out all right — his reassurance would have meant much less to Bill. It would have been "generic" reassurance, rather than a reassurance specifically aimed at helping Bill with his fears. But because it included empathy, Bill did feel better, safer, more hopeful that he would be OK in the long run.

The presence of Uncle Roger made a difference in Bill's mother, too. Seeing the contrast between her husband and his brother gave her the courage to divorce Bill's dad. The power of someone providing empathy and safety — even though Uncle Roger was providing it for Bill and not for her — showed her a better road for herself and her son.

Grown-ups with older parents know about this reassurance job. As their parents get more frail or become ill, their adult children are called on to provide empathy and reassurance for the parents. It doesn't matter that they're biologically and chronologically "the children." Their role is now parental. They're the ones who provide a hug and a murmur before surgery, "It's going to be OK. I'll be here when you come out." At any age, and for anyone you love.

Reassurance isn't the same as denial. "Hey, no problemo! What's a little cancer? You'll be fine!" is not helpful. It may sound upbeat, but it's generic, not to mention awkward, lacking in empathy, and a bluff. It's wishful thinking, and the pretense that saying something makes it true. The suffering person feels more alone, because she's caught between wanting to say, "You're an idiot," and having to take care of the scared, bluffing well-wisher by pretending everything's fine so he'll feel better.

 

 

 

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