This week we were asked to write about an experience we had that was interpreted differently by the other person we were with.
My wife, my three year old son and I were at a soft-play centre. After a little while I got bored, so I got my phone out and started browsing the internet. I looked up from my phone and saw my son throw a small plastic ball at another child and it hit the other boy in the face. I shouted to him “Jake! Don’t throw balls at faces please!” My wife then turned to me and said “They were playing catch. You know his aim isn’t too great yet”. I was a little embarrassed. I missed a crucial part of the interaction and misinterpreted the whole thing. My wife’s view of the incident was that they were playing catch, passing the balls nicely to one another, then one ball went awry and hit the other child in the face, and then I shouted at Jake.
What can I take away from the incident? Well, it shows that while seeing the actions of others is important, it is necessary to see them in context, rather than as a stand-alone act. People can, depending on the metaphorical lens they see through, view incidents differently than other people. Jake has thrown balls at other children before, and I have had to tell him off for it, and that coloured my view of the incident. This fact was clearly brought to the forefront of my mind when I saw the ball hit the other child in the face, and my snap judgement of the situation was that he had done it on purpose. I clearly had a pre-conceived idea that he wasn’t playing nice when in actual fact it was an honest accident, but from my frame of reference I jumped to the wrong conclusion.
Here is a funny little metaphor I’ve come up with that highlights how a frame of reference can colour ones view of something. Imagine an abstract painting, one that looks like it could have been painted by a five year old.
Imagine the frame around it is a cheap looking clip frame that cost £1.50 – the impression you get from the picture would be one that suggests it was indeed done by a child, and the proud parent wants to protect and display it, but not at great cost.
Now imagine the frame was a simple and stylish border that picks out the key colours of the composition, the picture mounted professionally, and accompanied by a little plaque that explains the abstract nature of the picture – the impression that gives is that it is a genuine piece of art, carefully crafted by an artisan to have deep meaning.
Now imagine that same picture was hung in an ornate bronze frame that had withstood the test of time. Immediately the impression you get is that the painting is old, valuable, and was obviously hand-painted by a very important historical artist.
The picture is the same in every example, but the three different frames (of reference) give three very different impressions of that picture.
We were also asked to remember a time when we felt understood and accepted. For me, it would have to be the time when I was having some personal difficulties and was suffering from depression. I needed to have some time away from things, just to sort my head out and let the anti-depressants kick in, so I went in to work to tell my manager that my Doctor had signed me off work for a while. I had been keeping her up to date on what was going on in my home life at the time, and when I went in to tell her she was very supportive and understanding. She didn’t want to know any specifics and she didn’t ask me any questions, she just asked if there was anything they could do as a company, and wished me all the best.
I reacted to her calm acceptance by being instantly calmed. I was quite anxious to go in and tell her that my Doctor had signed me off for two weeks, and her understanding response made me feel that they valued my well-being; they valued me getting better over the company’s needs. The fact she never asked any personal questions also showed acceptance. I responded to her actions by getting better in my own time. The tablets took their time to work, I had some much needed time and space to work things out, and when I went back to work I thanked her for being so understanding. Overall, this whole experience was positive.
As a contrast to this, we were also asked to remember a time when we didn’t feel understood and accepted. I think that the most recent time I didn’t feel understood or accepted was when I overheard someone talking about me, not realising how far her voice travelled. I heard a lot of what was said, and it was either blatantly untrue, horribly biased, or based on assumptions – And none of it has she ever said to my face.
I reacted initially by being very angry that she was discussing my personal life with someone who is a stranger to me. Not only was she discussing my private life, but she was getting fundamental facts from my past wrong – I will only give one example of what she said otherwise we will be here all day. She stated as fact that my Father walked out on us when I was three or four, and that I’m still hung up on it – he didn’t “walk out” when I was “three or four”, and his leaving is not an issue from my past that I am “still hung up on”. I have never spoken to her about my Dad, she is simply not the kind of person that I would share such personal insights with, and any information she has about our relationship is third-hand hearsay more than anything else.
I felt that she had misunderstood my history and the way I am because she was basing it on her third-hand amateur psychoanalysis. To be accepted is for someone to say “yes, that is what you did or how you behaved, and I can see why it is difficult for you to do otherwise as that is your nature, your personality”. Her moaning and complaining about my behaviour is the total opposite of that, which I why I did not feel accepted.
I responded by cooling down and not sending an angry email to her. In the end I rationalised that it is meaningless to me that some random person I will most probably have no interactions with in the future has knowledge that is wrong about me. But I was still hurt and felt betrayed that she said the things in the first place, and I still have an urge to put her right. I am not sure whether I will send the email, or send it but first edit it down to being a bit more polite.
To compare the two contrasting examples, being curt, the first one made me feel happy, the second one made me feel sad. So thus, to be understood and accepted is to be happy. I didn’t realise this until I just wrote that last sentence, but that statement aligns with the core conditions of counselling. When you show a client that you understand and accept them, it makes them feel happy in general. And that goes a long way to building a rapport and digging deeper into the issues. That was an enjoyable and enlightening exercise, with an unexpected payoff that I should have seen coming really!
We were then asked to reflect on the difficulties and challenge of feeling empathic towards others. The person I overheard in the above example is very much in my mind now after writing those examples above, so I find it natural to mention now how I find it very hard to empathise with her. She is a real character, very set in her ways and almost overwhelmingly negative. She is judgemental, manipulative and often very ignorant of other people’s feelings, alongside several other narcissistic traits. I find it hard to empathise with her because I like to be nice to people, I don’t like purposefully hurting others, and I just cannot fathom how she can say hurtful things with the intent to emotionally wound.
I think I have generated a kind of negative passive empathy with her, in that when I am around her I feel very negative in myself, and very defensive, like I am always under harsh scrutiny. As such I am very wary of what I do and say when she is around, which I believe relates to the saying “walking on eggshells”. When we first met, I was my usual polite and happy self, however over time her attitude towards me has kind of rubbed off on me somewhat, and devolved me into becoming an overly cautious and unnaturally quiet individual around her. Is this a negative form of empathy?
Since I have started this course, I have tried to be more empathic in general, but sometimes I can struggle to be empathic towards people or issues that I have no previous experience with. The article we found the other week was enlightening, because I had previously never considered what it was like to be a woman in an industry dominated by men, so that has made me more empathic to everyone who has come forward due to the revelations about Harvey Weinstein. I don’t think it’s possible to be empathic all the time as it would be mentally very draining. But at the same time you can’t really turn empathy off – If you listen to a sad story and it triggers a wave of sadness inside of you, or as someone relates a story of how they were physically attacked to you, you feel the surge of anger rising up, you are experiencing empathy whether you like it or not.
A few of the other students are not as together with their work as I am, and have started to joke that I am “top of the class” or “teacher’s pet” – I know it is light-hearted and they mean no harm by it. I enjoy writing about and researching things that I am interested in, so it is a mark of how much I am enjoying the course that I put so much effort in. I don’t feel in any way that taking notes, researching or writing things down is going to be a problem, but rather my actual counselling skills in practise will be. Despite researching the concepts and techniques we have been taught so far, I am still unsure and nervous about roleplay, which in essence is the real core of the course, being able to talk to someone as a counsellor. In the heat of the moment I forget techniques and forget the structure of the session. I’m sure it will come in time, but right now I don’t feel confident in roleplays.