Empathy vs. Empowerment

If you will allow me to do so, I’m going to share some words recently spoken by an old friend and colleague. Just for kicks, let’s call him “Larry.” Regarding his experiences with thousands of people attempting to make change in their health status, Larry said: “People suck. They are all weak, lazy liars who habitually underestimate their ability to bring to completion even the most trivial of accomplishments.”

Now I don’t necessarily agree with this sentiment, and in fact I find Larry’s position a bit shocking. Maybe you do too. I’ll come back to my impressions of Larry’s cynicism, but I want to jump right into my own views on the real challenge of relating to people and aiding them in becoming inspired, educated, and action-oriented in a positive direction.

I try not to be too quick to judge. If something isn’t working, I force myself to avoid putting the “blame” on the person or audience with which I am engaged. So I say to myself, “Maybe they don’t suck at all, and maybe, just maybe I am the one who sucks.” Ouch. That hurts to admit. But yes, it is often true. Any time we are working with a like-minded person, it is easy to get on the same page and rapidly approach excellent results. That’s a given. But for any one of us, the people we live and work with every day are generally not our clones. And therein lies the challenge.

I have found that the key to helping another person toward a goal is to do a better job of listening, observing, and understanding how he/she thinks and behaves. What is his/her intrinsic motivator, what obstacles are in the way, how can I make whatever message that needs to be delivered more palatable? This is inherent in the art of any relationship, be it coaching, educating, counseling, etc. The ultimate result is using empathy to lead to empowerment.

Back to Larry. As a self-employed full-time clinician in orthopedic physical therapy, Larry stayed in the game a lot longer than most. He worked intensely into his mid-70’s, having a true passion for his career, his profession, and his patients and clients. But unfortunately, in my opinion, Larry fell into the trap that is known to lead to burnout in many healthcare and medical practitioners. He used too much empathy. An article in the December 2017 issue of Scientific American entitled “I Feel Your Pain”, by Lydia Denworth, revealed a new understanding of the empathy experience. Specifically, brain regions known as the insula and the cingulate cortex are not only activated when we feel pain of our own, but when we, either willingly or unwillingly, share the pain experience of others. This is what I call “Green Mile S**t!” (GMS), or let’s just say “Green Mile Stuff.” I am of course referring to the late Michael Clarke Duncan, whose Academy Award-nominee performance as the character John Coffey, in 1999’s “The Green Mile”, was perhaps the greatest example of empathy every chronicled. In the movie, Coffey could actually take away another person’s pain and suffering with his supernatural powers, in a way that magically drew the illness or infirmity into his own being. I think that a lot of us, in well-meaning fashion, fall victim to this phenomenon, and it can lead to us not only becoming exhausted or jaded, but unable to bridge the gap to empowerment.

Whether with ourselves or others, it’s important to emphasize ownership. The best example of this concept comes from a wise old fellow I knew many decades ago, who we’ll call “Howard.” Please pardon the grammar as I think Howard’s insight is best delivered in the exact vernacular he utilized. “You gotsta OWN YOURSELF! Ain’t nobody but you responsible for you!” And I couldn’t say that better today. We need to be empathetic towards others in this life. It is essential for understanding and compassion. But we have to help others to find that path that leads them to their own, internally-driven success. And we need to do this same thing with ourselves. A more trite phrase, but one that used to be on my office wall, is “If it is to be, it is up to me.”

Now how about this “weak and lazy” characterization? This can be a really broad brush stroke, so let me reduce it down to just a fine-point marker line by emphasizing how this has to do with diet and exercise behaviors in those attempting to make health improvements. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who I thought was truly weak and lazy. I don’t even know how ingrained in the human existence those things may be. But I see a lot of people who may be inappropriately labeled as such who are fatigued, even exhausted, and are functionally unable to succeed at health goals. It really comes down to them having metabolic dysregulation due to hormonal imbalances. Poor sleep, crappy diets, excessive stress, and many other culprits set a person up for failure with a health habit. And this is compounded if they have the wrong information and have to become “unbrainwashed” about how all these simple life factors like food, activity, and how we feel, think, and act fit together.

Let me give a specific example of that last paragraph. If a person is trying to clean up his or her diet and get off processed carbs, starches, and sugar, but doesn’t know how to easily accomplish this, they will struggle. Consumption of that garbage will cause powerful cravings (research proves sugar to be more addictive than cocaine) that lead to eating more and more junk food, raising blood sugar, causing insulin resistance, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. The hunger hormone grehlin rages, the satiety hormone leptin is out of whack, access to stored bodyfat to burn for energy is blocked, and fat storage is accelerated. It’s indeed a vicious cycle and the drive to eat junk food is overpowering. This has nothing to do with weakness or laziness, but everything to do with undeniable hormonal stimuli. You can’t outwillpower your hormones…nope, not possible. So in a case like this, we have to find ways to educate a person about how this process works both biochemically and behaviorally, in a way that they can accept and understand, and by which they won’t be offended. Then we progress to macronutrient ratios and all the myths regarding dietary fat and help them to build their own effective nutritional approach.

And finally, people are not liars who can’t accomplish anything. In fact, the perception that someone lied about wanting or trying to accomplish something tells me that they really wanted to succeed in the first place, but that they just didn’t know how to do so. They didn’t get the right information, delivered in the way that works for them. So we need empathy. It helps us to connect with another’s experience in this world. But we also need to challenge ourselves to empower others, and to empower ourselves, to make positive change in health, and every other area of the human experience. I love ya Larry. And it’s OK to agree to disagree.

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