Empathy and Empowerment

Empathy and Empowerment

In my free time I am a photographer of beautiful stories.  I recently had the privilege of capturing the birth journey of a mother and her little boy. I learnt that experiencing more than your own birth story is such a privilege. You get to observe the most beautiful miracle on earth without the nasty post birth burns and bruises. In the room that evening we were me, another photographer, two doulas, the midwife and the father. The lady who acted as the Midwife of the blossoming mother, said a very true thing during this particular birth.

While mommy was at the peak of contractions and experiencing the ultimate pain the human body can endure, most of us were cringing in sympathy for her pain. Having gone through it, we could full well feel her impatience with the contractions and the child’s unwillingness to come down the birth canal.

The midwife made an assessment and told the mother that she was in a critical stage of the birth process and that she had to focus all her energies on getting the little one out as soon as possible. You could hear silent whispers of “ag shame (meaning oh shame)” and everyone’s heart just going out to this mother. You could see she was in extreme pain and discomfort at that time. The midwife made a very good observation in the room. She said to the mother that she had to forget about everyone around her and that she had to focus on bringing her child into the world. The Midwife told her that it was her journey and that she was the only person in the world who could bring that little beautiful soul into the physical. Then she said a very key thing: our sympathy was not helping her. Mom had to gather her energies and focus on getting them both through this safely.

In that moment she brought such a beautiful truth down for me. You often hear people talking about being “empaths’ and that they are “taking on other people’s stuff” and that they are ‘sensitive” and can feel everything that other people are feeling or experiencing. In that, we often we express our sympathy for people and their external situations.  Mostly our sympathy is expressed for completely justified causes: a parent who lost a child, someone living with a disability, a woman who’s husband had an affair, a father who lost his job, a child that finds it hard to do sports or maths. So many justified reasons why we should constantly feel sorry for the other person(s). By no means am I saying that we should completely close up to horrible situations and that we should go about life like robots not feeling for other people’s hurts. The problem is that we are often quite condescending. We are actually “looking down” on this person . We express our sympathy as if they can not deal with the situation they are in.  In that sorrow we allow people certain behaviours that we would not allow others and we permit them to do/say things that are not acceptable or sometimes even severally overstepping our boundaries. We allow them special privileges because of their circumstances or overlook behaviour patterns that are not serving them.

People are way more resilient than we think. WE are more powerful than we think! The reality of life is that by putting our friends, family and colleagues in cotton wool, we are not serving them. Sometimes we are keeping back from them important feedback, as to spare their feelings or not to upset them.

The midwife was right. Our misplaced sympathy was not helping this mother on her birth journey. If anything, it was completely inappropriate considering that you have a mother, a soul who chose this journey of motherhood. That meant she accepted all the responsibilities and experiences that came with it. She didn’t need our sympathy. In life, our sympathy can create a cycle of victim hood with the persons we send that energy to. We forget that every soul on this earth signed up for the journey and ALL its challenges. Yes, we may not directly have chosen  the bitter hurt or pain in our lives. No one chooses to be a victim of rape or child abuse. But we do choose our response. We choose if we are going to let the situation win us over and/or if we are going to get up and overcome it. By constantly listening to the sympathy calls and expressions of “oh shame, you poor thing, I feel so sorry for you”, it is very hard for us not to absorb that attitude and start to feel sorry for ourselves. Even more so, we start to bank on people’s sympathy and we start to use it as a get out of jail free card. In essence very easy to become a crutch. I am in a wheel chair, therefore I must write a different test to all other people. I am struggling with maths, therefore the teacher must always give me special attention etc.

My message is two fold. Careful in how and where you express your sympathy, because chances are that ten people have expressed that sorrow to the “victim” before you. You may be replaying a “tape” or message that is being fed into that person’s subconscious. It’s very easy to become the victim in hard circumstances.  Ask yourself if what you are saying is helping the person and/or if it is potentially contributing to negative programming in that person’s mind. Secondly, who are you listening too? Are you absorbing that misplaced sympathy and making it your attitude? Are you sure your guard is not down in the circumstances and that you not are absorbing those well meaning, but severely dis-empowering, statements and attitudes from the other person(s)?

When external “things’ happen to us, it is very easy to focus on the situation, instead of looking inside to ourselves and choosing how we are going to respond to the situation. That mother is a beautiful, strong woman who already had a first child. She knew what she was getting into. She knew the long term rewards will completely outweigh the short term pain.  The same is true for any hardship we go through in life. I broke my leg a year ago and going through the process was hard. But I learned so much through that journey. Even with living with severe pain and the limiting functionality I still have on the leg, I would not change what happened to me if I had a choice. Because I learnt so much from that experience!  I learned about compassion, I learned about appreciating every moment of health in my life. I learned about slowing down and letting go of my world’s expectations and other people’s dependency on me. So many gifts in the tragedy!  We chose the journey, we chose the lessons we wanted to learn. Although we don’t have control over how those lessons are taught, we still had the choice in what we wanted to learn.

She didn’t need my sympathy, she needed my focus, my encouragement and my support.  This post is dedicated to every woman who have gone and will still go through the birth experience. Your body was made for this – you can do it! I believe in you and your rewards are so much more than the temporary pain.

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