7 Keys to Courageous Self-Expression | Empathy (Part 2 of 2)

Let’s get real about self-sacrifice and what, if anything, it has to do with empathy. Candice shares a few hard-earned lessons she learned about ‘service’ while waiting tables, along with an intimate peek into how she and her partner often mess things up when it comes to offering empathy to one another. We’ll explore how hijacking vulnerability isn’t the same thing as helping, and explore options when it comes to supporting (versus saving) the people we love. The episode wraps up with four strategies to help us to develop emotional agility.

 0:35 - Snickers Pie (story)
7:11 - Service vs. servitude
12:22 - My First Diary (story)
15:07 - Social anxiety
17:35 - Spilling the truth
19:18 - Hijacking vulnerability
21:54 - Lizzie (story)
28:46 - 4 strategies for emotional agility

#11 | More Heart, Less Heroics

Hello hello. Welcome to The Deeper Pulse. This is Candice Schutter.

We've been exploring the 7 keys of courageous self-expression. Last week, we explored three types of empathy. I spoke about shame, accountability, and the role that emotional intelligence plays in our ability to receive the countless benefits of shared vulnerability.

This week, we're going to zoom in a bit, focusing on some of the challenges that we face when we strive to live life with an open heart.

Let's get started.

I was 15 when I got my first job as a hostess at a dinner theater. I would guide well dressed men and women to their assigned tables in a three-tiered dining room that stretched wide in front of a large performance stage.

Guests would help themselves to a buffet line before the opening act. I'd helped the kitchen staff replenish chaffing dishes, then my coworkers and I would weave through the aisles doing our best to be quiet and inconspicuous while clearing plates and heavy flatware under the dark glow of distant stage lights.

During intermission, we would gather dessert orders and deliver heaping slices of Snickers pie and New York style cheesecake.

Less than a year after working there, Laura went away to college and I was promoted to her post as Head Hostess, which included the honor of calling backstage to start the show each night. Shows like Grease, Fiddler On The Roof, and The Sound of Music. Saturday matinees would soon become my add on shift, as I began helping out during children's theater productions. During the springtime run of Alice in Wonderland, I was asked to dress in an enormous rabbit costume. I still remember the squeals of the children as they would rush toward me with delight.

Eventually it was my turn to head off to college. And after a part-time work study gig at the rec center, I realized that I missed the business of service.

BarbWire Steakhouse was a high-volume environment with blaring country music and six kinds of beef to choose from. A couple of weeks into my first official job waiting tables, I dumped an entire tray of water glasses down the back of an 80 year old woman. I wish I could blame the peanut shells that were smattered all over the floor, but it was really just due to inexperience and nerves.

My manager came running. He found me kneeling on the floor, in tears. My fingers bloody from failed attempts to clean up ice and broken glass. He sent me to the break room and handed the table over to a more experienced server. I will never forget the look that the elderly woman's daughter gave me as I walked away; her eyes filled with disgust and contempt.

But as with everything in time, I got over it. I learned to shout "corner!" and "behind" while passing through doorways and service stations. I loved the pace of a busy restaurant. It kept my mind occupied, and my body moving.

And I adored the people. Behind the scenes in restaurants, generally speaking, is a population of free-thinking artists and irreverent smart asses. It's like a family you have to earn your place in. Drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes is by far the most efficient way to do this; and at that age, I was more than happy to oblige.

By my senior year of college, I had graduated to fine dining. As a restless empath, I was the ideal candidate for upper management. I could read the room and anticipate needs. And tending to disappointment had become my specialty. Typically, all you had to do to 'right a wrong' was apologize with sincerity and give them something they weren't expecting. Make friends with their entitlement. Grovel a little. And cojole a whole hell of a lot. It was the science of pleasing people. And I was a natural.

When it comes to managing a restaurant, self-sacrifice is the magic ingredient. It's a culture of martyrdom, because it operates on a credo that puts the needs of the guests, and the restaurant's bottom line, above all else.

Floor managers have put in their time. They've risen through the ranks as servers and they have internalized the religion of a tip-based culture; one that reinforces a singular gospel. The customer is always right. Or at the very least it is your job to ensure that they leave your establishment believing this lie. Even when their needs are unrealistic. And even when their expectations border on abuse.

Front of the house managers carry the emotional weight for the entire staff, stepping in to manage dysfunction, absorb relational tension, maintain emotional equity, and reconcile service standards with kitchen sensibilities. All of this, while continually working overtime without pay.

Aside from the snazzy job title and the free drinks after work, the job was all grit with little glory. So eventually, I went back to waiting tables.

I was never really all that good at monetizing my business; for the majority of the years that I was living in Portland, Oregon, I coached and taught classes during the day, and then two to five evenings a week, I waited tables at a hotspot in the Pearl District; serving burgers, grilled cheese sandwiches and vodka infused cocktails to the botoxed masses. Some nights, I would make $300 in a single eight hour shift. I became reliant on the easy money, and the relationships that I had built with the people who worked there.

That said, I had to actively fight the urge to turn homicidal, particularly whenever a customer felt it was his or her duty to remind me to smile. It's not solely because I consider myself a feminist. It's also a pragmatic irritation. Smiling doesn't necessarily come easy if your nervous system is in chronic overdrive, or if you've been holding your pee in for the last hour.

In a busy restaurant, the demands of the work are unforgiving and incessant. It's been nearly four years since I waited tables, and I must admit... I do not miss it whatsoever.

But looking back, I am grateful. Twenty years of waiting tables taught me humility; and how to be less of an asshole to people who are busting their asses to make my life just a little bit easier.

Also, I learned how to multitask like a mofo, balanced drinks on a tray like a circus savant, and perhaps most critically, I learned how to know what people need... often, even before they do.

Customer service is an empath's training ground, because reading the room is a matter of survival. And, it's also a masterclass in emotional regulation. If you want to be successful in the biz, you've got to learn how to keep your shit together. Especially when you're 'in the weeds,' which is restaurant speak for juggling more than humanly possible. You must make peace with a culture of self-sacrifice. Suck it up when it comes to maltreatment and keep it to yourself. That is until you're free to complain about it to your coworkers after hours. Your livelihood, quite literally, depends on your ability to set your needs aside and make someone else your center of gravity.

Service itself is a sacred endeavor. Doing for others can be a spiritual training ground, if it is also in service to something soulful within. However, when it becomes a business model that breeds unrealistic expectations or dehumanizes the contributions of individual players, it is no longer a holy endeavor of provision. When generosity of spirit turns transactional, service become servitude, often reinforcing patterns of codependency.

Now I'm not here to debate tip culture, or offer up a solution to the complexities of the service industry. I'm here to say, whether it's in the workplace or at home, striking a balance when it comes to the needs of others can be very tricky business indeed.

There are a countless many, who have never worked in a restaurant, who spend the majority of their waking hours attuning to the emotions of others; family members, partners, a chosen in-group. And in doing so, many have fallen out of step with their own needs altogether.

It's a rather confusing conundrum. One that can feel a bit paradoxical. When, due to force of habit, our personal wellbeing has become contingent upon the emotional stability of the people around us, we ourselves become desperate to serve them. We do all the things... bend ourselves this way and that in order to reconcile their needs, even at the cost of our own... because why wouldn't we? Our sanity is largely dictated by how he, she, or they are feeling.

In this way, empathy can become somewhat pathological... a prison of pleasing and appeasing.

Now if you can relate to any of that, you might be a woman. It's true. Women and mothers in particular are socially conditioned toward this end. As young girls, we're taught that we must continually make an impossible choice between loving ourselves and those we hope to serve. We are rewarded, celebrated, and often promoted when we sacrifice our needs for others. We are misunderstood and demonized when we prioritize our desires over our partners, our children, or our communities. And if, heaven forbid, we say... "but what about me?" If we dare devote an extended period of time tending to the frivolity of our soul's deepest yearnings... look out. Here come the labels; labels that are often unspoken.

As a middle-aged woman who has made the conscious choice not to marry, have children, or become a slave to certain conventions, I've been called all sorts of things. Selfish, being the label I am most commonly given. And it stings every damn time. There is no greater insult to an empath than to be called selfish.

But you know what? I also know that it's simply not true that tending to oneself is indeed selfish.

And I tried it their way. I abandoned myself in order to serve, constantly waiting for the moment when it would be my turn. Women are sent the message, again and again, that it is okay for us to show up for our needs, but only if no one else needs anything.

Take a moment to think about that... only when no one else needs anything. When exactly is that bell going to toll? Probably never.

And also, how has it been working out for us and for them?

So many women sacrificing their desires in the name of love. Has it made the world and our children more kind, accountable, loving and free? Or, is our self betrayal being reflected in the world through rising rates of anxiety and depression, and an emotional climate that is more insecure, entitled, and separate than ever?

I'll let you come to your own conclusions around all that.

As for me, I've come to believe that empathy does not require us to separate from ourselves in favor of his, her, or their needs. It instead asks that we connect with the deeper self so that, instead of modeling self subjugation and giving of ourselves until our tank is dry, we can express generosity through an embodiment of grace and the capacity to demonstrate self regard through our everyday choices.

We must treat ourselves and our needs with kindness and generosity. Not only because we deserve our own love, but also because in order to give love, purely and freely, we must come to know intimately what stands in the way of it.

And that's why empathy isn't just about showing up to the sadness, pain, and disappointment of others. It means paying attention to ourselves, to our personal stories, inherited biases, judgments, and projections. When we feel compelled to point fingers, or we find ourselves on the receiving end of shame or blame, this is also empathy working its magic on us... just in another way. Can we respond to strong emotions with compassion and grace? Not only out there, but within our own hearts.

It was my anxiety that led me to become a writer. It all started with a diary. That's what we called journals back in the day. I would fill the pages of diaries. It was a way for me to survive my childhood sensitivities. We didn't express, let alone name, what we were feeling in my household so I spent a lot of time steeping in the stew of my own emotions. As an only child, pen and paper became another way for me to breathe.

But as I grew older, it wasn't enough to see myself on the page. I wanted... no, I needed to become more transparent to the world around me, particularly when I felt unseen or unsafe.

I was given two models for conflict resolution. Be like mom; suck it up and go about your day with stoic acceptance. Or, be like my stepdad and blow the whole goddamn house down.

Now the first approach was doable, and it was typically my go-to. But it also felt like knives in my belly. The second approach, well... You might as well have asked me to climb Mount Everest. I just didn't 'do' anger.

So, I graduated from journaling to writing letters. There I could safely lay out my feelings in black-and-white. I could control the narrative and my self image all with the push of a pen.

When a friend would label me as sensitive or needy, I would write a five page letter explaining, in detail, how low maintenance I really was.

When a school yard crush would lose interest and refuse to return my affection, I'd drop a fat stack of paper through the slats of his locker and make a compelling case for all the ways that I did not, in fact, feel rejected by him.

And the funny thing... is I was certain that when it came to communicating, I was crushing it. After the fact, the content was usually ignored, but I would get a compliment on my writing.

I told myself that I was writing to be understood. When in reality, I was just trying to clean up my image, sidestep vulnerability, and wash away all evidence of my humanity.

I still catch myself doing this. All the damn time. But as I'm getting older, I am caring less and less about who does and doesn't get me and recently I've come to ask myself a question:

What if I write and share my stories, not because I want to be seen and known and understood, but because I want what we all want more than anything else... empathy, connection, and the permission to feel. Perhaps that's what I was seeking all along. Maybe it wasn't about agreement or a need being met.

Empathy is the embodiment of acceptance, and we know it when we feel it.

But unfortunately, because we each bring our stories to the table, we're conditioned to believe that we must somehow become unbroken in order to be loved whole again.

This is simply untrue, but it's no easy script to flip.

I am a grown ass woman who's done a lot of inner work and come a long way. And I still spend an inordinate amount of energy fretting about a social media comment or wondering if I did or said the right thing while interacting with a friend, client, or loved one.

It was this social anxiety that made me a great server, and a painstakingly articulate writer... yet is being so deliberate really serving me?

If, like me, you wonder at times why no one is rushing forward to support you... to offer you the warm wash of empathy; perhaps it is because they are having trouble finding you underneath all that armor.

Ironically, those of us who are best at offering support, especially if we have in some way tied our identity to being a helper... well, it often turns out that we're not so great at being on the receiving end of empathy. And even when we do feel safe enough to let our guard down, to be vulnerable... some part of us is still resistant, operating as if there is only a finite amount of empathy to go around. We dare not consume an ounce of it because our needs might just drain the river bed dry.

But deep down we know better. We know that intimacy is an interdependent dance and that in order to be sustainable, it requires a synergy of sharing.

Habitually, feeling into the emotional atmosphere around us will become exhausting, if we don't also learn to receive love in kind.

But as we know, making room for ourselves takes practice. Spilling our own truth can feel torturous when we feel into others to such a degree. The immediate feedback we receive can be internalized, and it just seems easier to live a life of compliance and sail along without rocking the boat. But over time, we learn that an unwillingness to rock the boat can, and likely will, take down the whole damn ship in due time. As we mature emotionally, we learned that the truth is an inevitability. The sooner we honor what's alive inside of us, the better for all.

I once scrolled upon a meme that read: "It's funny how everybody considers honesty a virtue, but nobody wants to hear the truth." Now I have some mixed feelings around this sentiment, because kindness must flow in two directions at once.

Empathy is most functional when it has lots of space in it. It's true, if we want the truth, we must learn how to make room for it... to self-regulate and remain mindful to the discomfort it may trigger.

And, likewise, if people tend to flinch when you express yourself honestly, or if your expressions are regularly met with defensiveness, disdain, or disgust... there might be something for you to look at there.

It takes mindfulness and practice to learn how to take in the truth without taking on every emotion that's being expressed. We can learn to see relationship as an emotionally alchemical experience where what happens in communication is about the chemistry of our two independent energies colliding.

Now this is, in essence, the beginning of our conversation on the next key, which is sovereignty. We will dive down that rabbit hole together soon. But I mention it now because empathy is a conscious dance between emotional differentiation and shared soulular significance.

When you come to truly understand that the experience of another person isn't really about you, even when it is on the surface in some way about you, you are able to respond with greater compassion and hold space for their needs as well as your own. Shared significance becomes a relational give-and-take; and compassion becomes much more effortless.

My partner, Chris, is a deeply empathic person. And sometimes, when I am experiencing emotional distress due to a sudden twist of fate or the unfortunate actions of another, he attunes so acutely into what he imagines to be my emotional experience that he loses touch with his ability to support me in the moment. I've had to stage interventions on my own behalf when his sorrow, anger, or empathic concern for me becomes larger than life.

Ironically, in an effort to empathize with my experience, his protective instincts kick in, and he hijacks my emotional discomfort... making it his own. Over the years, I've learned to check him on it because if I don't, soon enough, it's me taking care of him.

And now, before you think that I've got my shit together, you must know... I have my own cross to bear. When the tables are turned, and he's the one in need of support, things get equally messy. My tendency is to stage an analytical takeover. I try and control the situation; to clean it up as quickly as possible. I offer unsolicited advice, often overlooking what his needs are in the moment.

When Chris is stuck in all-the-feels, he wants me to help him carry the emotional load; to feel anger, sadness, or desperation right along with him. Instead, I offer him solutions.

When I'm dysregulated, I want Chris to transmit hopefulness; to help me open my mind to new possibilities. Instead, he feels my pain for me.

We give to each other the thing that, we ourselves, would most like to receive, losing sight of the fact that our needs are in fact different and that another person's pain is not ours to carry.

Hijacking vulnerability is not the same thing as helping. It takes a tremendous amount of emotional maturity to sustain compassionate attention while resisting the urge to sweep in with our own self-prescribed interventions.

One of my former therapists was kind enough to teach me, intensity is all too often confused with intimacy. Sometimes we think the drama of an interaction is what makes it constructive when, in fact, courageous expression and compassion, would be better served if we stepped outside of the narrative... into something more expansive and useful. Perhaps even, an upleveling of response that enables us to write a brand new story.

It was 2007, and I was in Birmingham, England. Afternoon sunlight was pouring in through the windows of the old church gymnasium. My co-facilitator and I were taking turns leading a group of 12 aspiring fitness facilitators through a series of teaching practicums.

It was day two of the three-day training. Each trainee was required to teach in front of their peers. It was Lizzie's turn.

Lizzie was in her early twenties, the youngest in the group. Despite her age, her courage was evidenced by her bright pink and purple hair and the body piercings that adorned her face. She smiled warmly as I placed the headset mic around the back of her head. As she began, she sounded confident, informed, and ready for this.

And then it happened. About three minutes in, after stumbling over a few words, Lizzie became paralyzed by self-doubt. We made a couple of attempts to coax her back into her senses and she responded with anger, announcing that she could not and would not continue with the exercise. Whipping the mic from her head, she fled the room in tears.

After waiting a few moments, I followed her outside. Lizzie sat on the steps, her petite frame crumpled in defeat. Her shoulders heaved as she shared a brutal self-critique with me, listing one by one, a catalog of prior failures that had all, in her mind, culminated in this moment. After making her case to me, she concluded emphatically that the exercise required a level of skill and courage she simply did not possess. As far as she was concerned... that was that.

I began by acknowledging her discomfort and the largeness of the task at hand. And I told her how much I could very much relate to so much of what she was saying. Particularly her desire to self protect. I admitted to her that, after a half decade of teaching, I still carried self doubt with me into every room I entered. And then I celebrated the fact that we both knew well enough to be wise, discerning, and protective when it came to sharing our wide open hearts with others.

As I spoke, she seemed to soften, but only a little.

I sat with her for a bit. And then, sensing that she needed some time alone, I told her that no matter what she chose, to stay or to go, that I would stand with her in solidarity, as long as it felt right and true to her. Then, I left her there alone on that front stoop, knowing that she had to decide for herself how the rest of the story would go.

A few minutes later, she came back into the room, remembering why she had come. She told us she wanted to give it another go.

She took a deep breath and began speaking. Her instruction was clear. It flowed along smoothly. And she got further along the path before it happened again, before the learning curve caught up with her and she forgot what came next. Uncertainty and insecurity derailed her train of thought, and tears began rolling down her cheeks.

She stared off into space, seemingly frozen. My co-facilitator and I each took a deep and audible breath together, so she could hear us. Many in the group joined in... all of us, hoping that Lizzie would catch this cue for regaining center that we had discussed in an earlier session.

And she might've, had she been given more time.

But the tension in the room had been growing, and feelings of helplessness had become unbearable for some. The desire to save Lizzy became stronger than the desire to support her. It was like an emotional contagion. Faces melted into concern and reassurances began flooding at her. "Oh, Lizzie. It's okay. You don't have to do this." One participant even rushed forward, placing her arm around Lizzie's shoulder.

At first I was stunned silent, mesmerized by how susceptible we all were to saviorship.

Lizzie had bravely made it known how much she wanted to do this; yet, in light of all the comfort rushing at her, this bright and capable young woman began to shrink before my eyes. She was buying into the story of her own helplessness.

And that's when it occurred to me. Lizzie doesn't need saving. She needs reminding.

I believed in her, and I desperately needed her to know it. So I stepped forward.

"Everyone, please stop and step back. This is Lizzie's moment. Let's let her have it. She doesn't need us to rescue her. She's strong and capable and ready for this. And if, like me, you believe that Lizzie can do this, then stand back. Give her space and time. She's got this."

Everyone did as I requested, and took their space back at the edge of the circle. Lizzie flashed me a panicky glance, and I held her gaze... shining back my unwavering confidence in her abilities.

After taking a few deep breaths, she began speaking again. She had a few more small hiccups along the way, but she successfully completed her first teaching practicum and she would do three more in the days to come. It became immediately apparent. Lizzie was a natural, and we had almost rescued her from her potential.

Whenever we offer empathy, it is wise to closely examine what it is we are in service to. The art of compassion strikes a delicate balance. If we buy into the intensity and the drama too much, we lose touch with empathy and get stuck in well-worn patterns. However, if we push against a narrative too soon and too hard, we risk disconnection, or worse yet, re-traumatizing.

As a coach, I've had a ton of practice and it's still not always easy for me to empathically share in the discomfort someone is feeling without getting tangled in the narrative. It's difficult to not want to fix, save, or satisfy them in some way.

We learn to empathize by going deeper making room for terror, self protection, despair even... while also carving out space for the ever-evolving deeper self that lives beneath the drama, and outside of the stories that attempt to hold us constant.

Which circles us all the way back to where we began. To the first, the second, the third, and now the fourth key... how it all leads us toward one invitation. To do our own inner work so that we can become all the more capable of offering genuine care and compassion toward others.

Before I wrap things up, I want to share with you some helpful tools inspired by psychologist, Susan David, who specializes in emotional agility.

As she describes it: "emotional agility is a process that enables us to navigate life's twists and turns with self-acceptance, clear sightedness, and an open mind."

As we grow emotionally, we learned that empathy isn't just about reading emotions. It's about learning how to consciously respond to them. And I have found that the more emotionally agile I become, the more I'm able to navigate sudden shifts in the emotional climate around me.

Susan David suggests four helpful strategies that support emotional agility.

#1: Showing Up. Showing up means challenging ideals of how you and I 'should be' feeling and actively being present to what is. This requires us to step outside of our conditioning; conditioning that teaches us to be chronically positive or pleasing. Instead we strive to show up with curiosity and compassion toward all of our emotions. And through practice, we learn to be able to offer the same to others.

#2: The Stepping Out Technique. Stepping out is all about mindfulness. Instead of saying, "I am depressed." We say, "I notice that I'm feeling depressed today." Or when supporting another, we might replace a question like, "why are you so angry?" with, "It looks to me like you're feeling frustrated; tell me more." When we learn to disidentify with emotions and see them more as weather patterns, we're able to better respond to them, be they ours or someone else's.

#3 David calls the third strategy: Walking Your Why. This third tool is all about connecting with our core values, the qualities of action we would most like to embody. So it's a mindset that reminds us that the choices we make while relating to others either move us toward or away from our values. When we're engaged in an emotionally charged interaction, what choices might align us with our values? Connecting with our core values while offering support to others can assist us to be more loving in our expressions of empathy.

Strategy #4: Tiny Tweaks. This one's all about embodying those same values through small habitual changes. And in time, these small tweaks to our behaviors will impact how we 'do' empathy and connection. For example, plugging your phone into an outlet in your office instead of in your bedroom at night, may serve greater connection between you and your partner. Or taking time to drink a glass of water or sit in stillness first thing in the morning, before doing anything else, this could set you up for a more mindful day, and help you to remain grounded during an emotionally charged interaction later in the day.

These four tools are just examples of the many practices available to us when we bring mindfulness to our relationships and interactions.

The things we usually point to and call empathy: taking on another perspective; feeling into someone's suffering; offering advice. These are just the on-ramps that prepare us for the real work of emotional self-awareness and shared accountability.

Empathy is a space, a space that we occupy together.

With practice, each one of us can become an agent of compassion. We can maintain verticality and resilience in the face of ever shifting needs and charged emotional climates, if we are curious enough to continually look beneath the drama.

And when you find that that is difficult to do, remember this. Anytime you find yourself caught in mine-or-theirs, this-or-that thinking, chances are you're dysregulated. Empathy must begin within. We must tap into resources that help us to relax and regroup; re-engage with our right mind.

It also helps if we remember, it's never about what it's about. The storyline playing out on the surface. The words that are being spoken. Whose perspective is right and whose is wrong. It is about the needs that all the drama points to.

Together we can learn to go deeper. Listen with heart and body to the deeper pulse and the unspoken undercurrents at play.

If you've listened to this episode and the last, and you feel as though you get it, but you're not entirely sure how to embody it. Join me next time.

We're going to move into the fifth key, sovereignty, the muscle that enables us to discern what is ours and what isn't; and how to walk in the world with clear boundaries and a wide open heart.

I'll see you next time. And as always, I welcome your comments and feedback at thedeeperpulse.com/share.

Remember, kindness, empathy, love... it's an inside job.

So do right by you today.

Sending you big, big love until next time.


© The Deeper Pulse, Candice Schutter