Our emotions are like baseballs that we hope other people catch. Sometimes we throw them hard at people, “You suck! You’re fired!” Sometimes we throw them soft, “I had the worst day. Rub my feet???” Sometimes we throw them like a knuckle ball, and no one sees where they’re going.
Just think about the last time someone exploded at you for something minor. That was a knuckleball. You didn’t see it coming. You don’t know what it was. You just know someone’s upset and you can’t figure out the real reason why.
Our Deepest, Most Human Desire
Our deepest desire as human beings is to have other people catch what we toss them. We need to cry out, “I’m hurt” and for our dads to respond with, “What’s hurting?” We yearn to yell, “You hurt me” and for our moms to say, “What happened? I’m listening.”
And what breaks our hearts? What makes us pack up our ball and go home? What makes us want to curl up and die, or break things, or hurt ourselves, or get drunk or stoned or lash out at others? This is what does the damage to our souls: When we tell someone, “I’m hurt.” And they respond with, “Get over it” or they relativize with, “I bet the other kid is hurt too, you should go apologize.” Or, when they say, “You had it coming.’
Make Empathy Your First Priority (Problem Solving Comes Later)
There is nothing worse than tossing someone your heart and having them throw it back in your face. So, please don’t do that. Not at first. At first, catch the heart/ball. Just catch it. Hold it. It’s hard to do, but you’ll get better at it if you make being empathetic your first priority. Say, “Oh, this is your `I’m Hurt’ ball”. Or, “This is your ‘You hurt my feelings ball”.
Whatever emotion they have tossed you, try to hold onto it and acknowledge it. Do your best. If you don’t know what they’ve thrown at you, feel free to ask, “Hey, something’s bothering you. What’s wrong?” This lets your loved one know that you can hold onto what they have given you. That they matter to you and that you are strong enough to be strong for them when they are feeling weak.
I assure you that if you can catch the ball, you are helping to slow down the world so your loved one can feel heard and cherished. After a while, you can toss the ball back. And then, maybe, you can try to problem solve, or do some peace-making with the other people involved.
1st priority: Catch the ball. Let your loved one feel heard.
2nd priority: Ask how you can help.
3rd priority: Toss your own ball. Once you’re loved one has experienced your understanding, bring in other points of view (including your own, if helpful).
Empathy Leads to Clarity
You will find that when your loved ones feel heard, even just a little, they think more clearly. That is because our ability to reason depends on our ability to feel calm and centred. And our ability to feel calm and centred requires attunement from others.
Human beings can not think win-win if they do not feel loved and respected. If we refuse to catch the ball, and their emotional needs go unmet, we make it harder for them to be rational, conscientious people. So, catch the ball when your loved one tosses it. And forgive yourself when it stings and you hurl it back in anger. Forgive yourself for the times when you drop the ball. And, since you need love too, please don’t take your ball home. Even if you feel alone and discouraged, try to not go it alone.
Remember: You Matter, Too
Remember: your heart matters just as much as anyone else’s. Your feelings are just as real and worthy of being held and respected as anyone’s. You deserve to toss your own ball and have it be caught and beheld.
Lindsey Jay Walsh, MMFT
Photo: Jon Eckert on Unsplash