Long ago, when I was 19 years old, I was in my college cafeteria, going through the buffet line with my tray. A young man in my German class, a person that I had admired, asked if he could speak with me for a moment. My heart leapt. Now maybe the experience of making friends, maybe even of having a boyfriend, would begin. I liked him. Maybe he liked me.
I took my tray to his table, anticipating good things. Instead, the young man told me that I was difficult to have in class, that I was moving too fast, taking too much of the teacher’s attention, and hindering the rest of the class from learning. As you might imagine, I had a neurobiological shame crash. I nodded and smiled, said thank you for the information, and left the table as quickly as possible. (More about my heart in a moment.)
Recently another person asked me if they could share the way that my behavior had impacted them negatively. It has been 30 years since that original experience. (Please know that many people have shared such things with me over the years. It has always been difficult for me. The difference in this moment is that now I’m beginning to be able to accompany myself for the first time, instead of abandoning myself, when I hear someone tell me that I have behaved in a way that they experience as hurtful.) Now I have more resources. I responded with clear NVC skills, self-empathy in the moment, accompanying myself, reflecting the other, making needs guesses for them, but still there was a shame crash. The experience lodged in my heart as mistrust of the other person, as a sobering expectation of dissatisfaction.
So waking up this morning and feeling the mistrust, I realized I needed to do some careful time travel empathy for my heart if I wanted to retain openness, warmth and some capacity for affection for the other. (At the same time, I was convinced that the other person was untrustworthy, and that nothing I could ever do would change that conviction, because I was right, and this person was obviously not someone I could ever relax around.) My heart, when I ask it, is remembering the experience with the young man from German class.
In response, if I step through time and space to visit my college self at that table in the cafeteria, what is my empathy guess for Sarah and her heart? I freeze the young man and I put an unfolded paper napkin over his face to take him out of the situation. I ask Sarah, “Are you so disappointed? Do you need acknowledgment of dashed hopes?”
She likes his face being covered. It gives her some relief. “Yes, I thought maybe he would be my friend. I’m so ashamed that I thought maybe he liked me. I was wrong and foolish to hope. I want to never hope again.”
“Would you love to be completely invulnerable to disappointment and shame?”
“Yes,” she says. “And I feel ashamed and humiliated, being given this look at myself from the outside. It’s a cold and harsh look at me, merciless. From this point of view, I have no redeeming qualities and I should not be in the picture. And maybe he’s right - when I think of the class, I can’t remember any other faces except his and the teacher’s. So I wasn’t realizing that the class existed.”
“Are you frozen with hopelessness?” I ask her. “Is the shock so great that suddenly all warmth has been sucked from the world? Do you need acknowledgment of horror and dismay? Is it horrifying to realize that indeed, you don’t have a sense of the class as a whole, that you have been utterly focused on your own learning, believing that you are a customer of education, equal to all other customers, and that everyone should advocate strongly for themselves? Are you struck with tenderness for the people you were not aware of? Do you ache to be compassionate and conscious of others?”
This question takes Sarah back farther in time. The experience of being confronted with my own lack of social consideration is ancient. My mother followed every social interaction that she observed with reproach and instruction about my lack of care. (As we move back in time in memory, we must also follow the memories with our empathy, if we would like to experience any shifts in the present.)
Little Sarah is about 6, has on a scratchy yellow dress, and her mother is telling her that she has been bossy, and no one will like her if she isn’t nice to them. Sarah had just had the wildest and most wonderful creative time of her life with a group of little girls. She had been making up stories and games and it was fabulous. This is a big crash, to hear that no one will like her, especially when it was so fun. She is frozen.
Again, arriving through time and space to bring empathy to Little Sarah, the first and most important thing to do is to make the environment safe. To do this, we freeze the mother. I ask Little Sarah if she is bewildered and shocked, and if she longs to experience shared celebration, delight, exploration, and more play?! “Yes, but I can’t trust myself,” she says. “What my mother is saying is so different from what I experienced.”
More than anything, Sarah wants to understand her mother, so we will wrap the mother in acknowledgment that my grandmother was too busy trying to survive to be able to give my mother social support. When my mom tries to track me and correct me, it is an act of love, a refusal of neglect, the effort to pay attention. My mom lived her life somewhat bewildered by the presence of other people, always trying to remind herself that they existed, and always losing track of them.
When we are fully supported and warmly accompanied, the right hemisphere is structured so that we have easy access to both our own autobiography and to theory of mind about others. Other people exist for us, and we notice them and we remember them without effort. They matter to us. Early experiences of trauma and terror disrupt the structuring of the right hemisphere, and create tears in our autobiography. Then social tracking has to be efforted in the attempt to compensate. My mom lived in the static, pre-IPNB world, where she just had to find a way to live with herself and her children, just as she was. Transformation and healing were not possible in her world.
Surprisingly, what is happening in the memory is that Little Sarah is feeling worry and tenderness for her mother. She would like her to be wrapped up in care and acknowledgment and support and healing. And she would like to be held by my college self, who can whisper to her about how fun German is, and come back with both of us to present time, where people tell us things about lost moments of connection, where we survive them without freezing and without judgment, and where there is a flock of beloved friends to kiss her on her head.
Now when I check back in with my mistrust of the person who brought me their pain and discomfort in present time, my wariness has evaporated. This person is just a person and I am a little curious about what will come next. I am surprised, as I was so convinced that I was right to be careful and suspicious around them to begin with. I keep testing my sense, the way I use my tongue to check for a chipped tooth. (Another disconfirming exploration of the amygdala's conviction of its protective decisions!)
This was a time travel empathy journey in honor of my heart, and this month’s teleseminar is a journey in honor of all of our hearts and the difference empathy can make in supporting us all in living in the present moment.