Natalie Love, LPC, LMFT

Individual & Couples Counseling

How to Offer Empathy

What exactly is empathy? And how do we offer empathy to others? According to Marshall Rosenberg, empathy is giving your full attention to what another is feeling & needing in a given moment. When we are empathizing we attune to what another is feeling & needing. We really connect to this person’s internal state, whatever the pain is within them, without judging or trying to change their experience. This may seem simple enough, but many times we aren’t giving or receiving actual empathy. I like to refer to Brene´Brown’s explanation of empathy illustrated in this cartoon:

You can see how rather than offering true empathy, we often follow the strong urge we have to give advice or reassurance and to explain our own position or feelings.

You can see how rather than offering true empathy, we often follow the strong urge we have to give advice or reassurance and to explain our own position or feelings.

What Empathy is Not

Any phrase that begins with “at least”

Years ago a dear friend of mine died in a car accident & I have remained close with her family. I, once, asked her mother if there was ever anything that anyone said to her that actually made her feel better. She was very clear in her response that nothing anyone could ever say would be able to lessen the pain of losing a child. And she thanked me for not trying to change her feelings, but for just being there with her and sharing in her sorrow. She had a particularly hard time hearing things like, “at least she is in a better place” or “at least she wasn’t your only child” or “this was just God’s plan for her.” Just as Brene´ Brown mentions in her explanation, any response that begins with “at least” is not empathy.

Empathy is not sympathy.  

When we sympathize with someone, we have compassion for that person.  We might say “I feel sad you’re going through this painful experience right now.” This is more of an expression of regret for the struggle or difficulty that person is feeling.  When we offer sympathy we are talking about ourselves and our feelings, which takes the focus away from what is going on within the other person.  Empathy is offering our full attention on what is going on within another person. After empathic connection we can offer sympathy but it is more useful if the empathy comes first.

Giving Advice

Despite our best intentions, offering advice is not empathizing.  Giving advice is our way of trying to make it better or lessen the pain, but by doing this we move away from the difficult feeling (usually because of our own discomfort) and interject our ideas of how to feel differently. Advice certainly has it’s place, but can be better received after connecting empathically.

“I Understand” 

When we say “I understand” we are expressing our intellectual understanding of their experience rather thandemonstrating understanding through attuning to what is present within them in that moment.  Sometimes just being quiet is a demonstration of understanding, which for many of us requires letting go of the discomfort we experience in silence.

How to Offer Empathy

Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication model suggests that the components of empathy are those things we need in order to stay connected with another.  In order to maintain connection with others we need the following:

1. Full Presence

Staying present with what someone else is feeling and needing in that moment.  This is difficult at times because our own feelings, thoughts, and reactions often come up when sharing in another’s experience.  Rather than focusing on our own internal state, we redirect our attention to the other person and can attend to our own feelings at a later time if needed.

2.  Focus on the Now

We are able to stay better connected in the present moment by not bringing up things from the past or getting distracted with intellectual understandings or explanations.

3.  Focus on Feelings and Needs

It is easy to get caught up in the story or drama of what is happening with others, but this pulls us out of the feelings and the internal experience.  It is more effective to connect to the feelings and needs that might be behind thoughts, words, or stories.

Brene´Brown also provides the following components for empathizing:

1. Perspective Taking

2. Staying out of Judgement

3. Recognizing Emotion in Other People

4.  Communicating that Feeling with People

Brown explains that we try to make others feel better because it’s vulnerable to access those difficult feelings in ourselves, but what actually helps is sitting with someone in their struggle, sharing in their pain, allowing for it to be there without changing or judging it. Empathy involves emptying our mind, putting our own needs aside, and listening to others with our whole being.

I enjoy sharing this clip from Modern Family where Phil is learning how to offer empathy (or how not to) to his wife, Claire.  It can be a humorous reminder of how we can easily insert our own ideas of what we think another may need rather than meeting them where they are in their experience and offering true empathy.

Bruce to Caitlyn: How to Be a Trans Ally

In my last two posts, I shared a general understanding of gender identity followed by terms, definitions, and understanding pronoun usage, and other resources. Now, I want to offer some suggestions & guidelines on how to be a trans ally.

When I first started working more with LGBTQ clients, I often questioned myself. What right or capacity do I have to help a clientele with whom I cannot fully empathize with? Because, I identify as a straight cisgender individual, I cannot claim to know what it is like to come out, or understand feeling conflicted from a young age, that though I was assigned female at birth I more authentically feel male. Despite my lack of direct experience with these issues, I am passionate about this work. I imagine there are certain clients who prefer to see a therapist who can truly get where they are coming from. Similar as to when a client seeks out a therapist who is also a parent, because they feel the need to work with someone who can more fully grasp their role as a parent. There are plenty of clients with whom I connect with on a deep emotional & intellectual level, yet do not have first hand experience of their specific struggles or differences. I have connected with transgender clients around the pain they’ve endured from rejection from religion & family, harassment from others, discrimination, homelessness, suicidal thoughts or attempts, self-hatred, and more. I feel honored to be part of the courageous process each of my clients engage in as they turn toward their true selves. Over time I have found myself more drawn to support the LGBTQ community and to advocate for equality. With that, I’ve come to understand more of what it means to be an ally.

Being an ally is a lot less intimidating than I initially expected, in fact when I started reading about what it means to be an ally, I was able to identify ways in which I was already doing so. And being a trans ally does not require perfection. You don’t have to have a perfect grasp on all the relevant issues, vocabulary etc., but your intention and efforts need to come from a place of compassion & support. When you do make a mistake simply own it or be open to correction. You can ask for help & guidance too. When I began working with trans clients, I acknowledged my limitations & asked my clients to correct me when I used an incorrect term or pronoun. I find that by expressing my willingness to learn & be corrected, others are much more understanding when I do mess up.

What is an Ally?

An ally is “someone who advocates for and supports members of a community other than their own; reaching across differences to achieve mutual goals.” (UC Berkeley, Gender Equity Unit)

Straight for Equality gathered a lot of material around what it has meant over the years to be an ally. Rather than a rigid set of requirements, they have re-developed a list of some of the valued qualities present among allies.

  • Allies want to learn. Allies are people who don’t necessarily know all that can be known on LGBTQ issues or about people who are LGBTQ, but they want to learn more.
  • Allies address their barriers. Allies are people who might have to grapple with some barriers to being openly and actively supportive of people who are LGBTQ, and they’re willing to take on the challenge.
  • Allies are people who know that “support” comes in many forms. It can mean something super-public (think covering yourself in rainbow glitter and heading to a Pride celebration with a sign reading, “PROUD ALLY”*). But it can also mean expressing support in more personal ways through the language we use, conversations we choose to have, and signals that we send. And true allies know that all aspects of ally expression are important, effective, and should be valued equally.
  • Allies are diverse. Allies are people who know that there’s no one way to be an ally, and that everyone gets to adopt the term in a different way…and that’s ok (from Straightforequality.org).

Where to Start

If you’ve read the previous two posts about gender identity, then you’re already on the right track. We can begin moving toward change by thinking about gender differently and acknowledging the rigidity of the gender binary within our society.   There can be a lot of power in modeling & setting an example for others. A great starting off point is to think about how “people should have the right to define their own gender–and allies should be the ones to accept & respect that identification (straightforequality.org).” Accepting a trans individual as they are and as they choose to express themselves even if you have some confusion or discomfort is an example of the contribution of an ally. Knowing appropriate terminology, understanding what is offensive (ie: asking about genitals, sex, & whether someone has had surgery or not), and applying that knowledge is a simple way to begin being a trans ally.

Apply What You Know

Now that you know about preferred pronoun usage, names, & terms, use them. If you don’t know someone’s preferred pronoun or name, simply ask or pay attention to how they refer to themselves around others. You can take it a step further by kindly correcting others & offering information when you hear others using disrespectful or just incorrect vocabulary.

You can also apply your understanding of the gender spectrum and your acknowledgement of the limitations the gender binary. For instance, if you work somewhere with forms or paperwork for people to fill out, consider modifying them so that there is a blank space next to gender rather than having to select male or female, or have options that are more inclusive.  This allows for people to express their gender identity, as they prefer. You can also consider having gender-neutral bathrooms for guests or customers if possible.

Never Out Someone

You should never, under any circumstances out a transgender individual without their permission.  Matt Kailey’s Transifesto lays it out clearly: “If you see a person on the street that you know to be trans, it is a private matter and not appropriate to tell your friends that the person is trans. It is also not appropriate to mention anything that would ‘out’ a trans person if you are with that person in a public setting.”

Outing a trans person can put them in a compromising position at work, with family, friends etc.  Unfortunately, it is simply puts that person in danger, sometimes physically or in various life roles.  You cannot “go back” or undo outing someone, so don’t do it! Along with that, it is best never to make assumptions either.

Advocate & Get Involved

Not everyone is going to be heavily involved in political change, and that is not essential to be a good ally.  Really dedicated allies, may be more inclined to get politically involved & that is an incredible way to promote change.  You can also be involved in smaller ways, like signing petitions, making changes in your workplace or other settings.  I was moved by a story I recently read about two 3rd graders who were disturbed by their experience on a trip to Disneyland. Probably not the reaction most people would expect from children going to the “happiest place on earth.” These 9 year olds were very aware of the race and gender stereotypes continually perpetuated throughout their experience at the amusement park.  They composed this letter expressing their concern and suggesting more sensitive, inclusive alternatives.  After reading this I felt inspired & realized that if children this young can speak out for change, why can’t I?

how to be a trans allyhow to be a trans ally

 

Bruce to Caitlyn: Gender Identity Resources

In my last post, Bruce to Caitlyn: Understanding Gender Identity, I began a response to the Bruce Jenner interview with Diane Sawyer and offered some basic information about gender identity, societal influence and the gender binary, and the inclusive gender spectrum. Here, I am following up with some specifics around pronouns, terms, & other gender identity resources.

Pronouns

Now that Jenner has officially emerged publically as Caitlyn Jenner, I will refer to her as Caitlyn and will use “her” and “she” rather than “him” or “he.” The use of preferred pronouns with transgender individuals is something I’m commonly asked about. When someone identifies as non-binary or gender non-conforming the pronouns “he” or “she” may not feel like a fit. There are several gender neutral or gender inclusive pronouns that people choose to utilize instead. Here is a chart with some examples.

If you are unsure of what pronoun someone prefers the best thing is to simply politely. This cartoon illustrates the pronoun issue in which I’m referring.

What is Transitioning?

Transitioning refers to the process an individual goes through to discover and or affirm their gender identity. This is a long-term journey that may take many years. This process is also unique to the individual in that some trans people do not have the means or resources for surgery and some do not have a strong desire or need to “medically transition.” There tends to be two aspects to transitioning:

  • Social and legal transition: Change of name, pronoun selection, cosmetic modifications to appearance, dress, changes to an individual’s vocal tone, etc. For many people, this will also entail legal changes to their name and gender marker on identification documents like driver’s licenses and passports.
  • Medical transition: The introduction of hormones (testosterone for trans men, estrogen and testosterone blockers for trans women) into the body. For somepeople, it will also involve surgical procedures that align the physical body with one’s gender identification. These may include “top” surgery, “bottom” surgery, and, for trans women, facial feminization.

Other Terms

Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT): Introduces hormones associated with the gender that the patient identifies with (notably testosterone for trans men and estrogen for trans women).

 MTF: male-to-female. Indicates a transgender individual who was originally assigned the gender of male at birth, but has claimed a female identity through clothing, surgery, or attitude changes

 FTM: female-to-male. Indicates a transgender individual who was originally assigned the gender of female at birth, but has claimed a male identity through clothing, surgery, or attitude changes.

“T” word: I’ve found that either “trans” or “transgender” are appropriate when referring to someone who identifies outside of their assigned gender. The word “tranny” is not generally accepted and some find it to be very offensive. It has historically been used as a slur but some are embracing it in the same way “queer” has evolved into a more empowering word that the LGBTQ community not utilizes in a positive way. Since the term has been perceived as offensive, I would say it is best to proceed with caution and should be assessed on a case-by-case basis rather than used as a general term describing transgender individuals.

Overall when it comes to terminology & pronouns consider the Platinum Rule: treat people as they’d like to be treated (vs. the Golden Rule: treat people as you’d like to be treated).

Don’ts

I typically feel that when we come from a respectful, genuine, & compassionate place most questions or mistakes are easily repaired. However, there are some questions that are generally considered to be off limits despite good intentions. I like to keep the Platinum Rule in mind here as well. Here are a few that should be avoided (remember you can always Google things you are curious about):

  • -Do not ask how people have sex. I don’t want to be asked this, as a cisgender individual, so it’s safe to assume a trans individual doesn’t either.
  • -Do not ask to see pre-transition photos or ask about who a person “used to be” (ie name etc.): When we start from the place of accepting people for who they say they are, knowing how they once were is not significant. Yes, you may be very curious how someone may have looked before, but it is in the past and many trans people prefer to leave that in the past (not unlike my preference to not share photos of myself from middle school).
  • Do not ask about a person’s surgical status or body parts. Some things are private and should only be talked about if someone brings it up on their own. Not every trans person has the desire or the means to make surgical changes, and this does not mean that they are any less trans. Understanding someone’s gender is not contingent upon understanding what happens “down there.”
  • Do not ask when a person “became” transgender. This question implies that there is a choice related to gender identity. As with the gay, lesbian, & bisexual coming out process, the trans coming out process can be long and challenging. No one suddenly “becomes” trans any more than they “turn” gay or lesbian.

There are many organizations and gender identity resources where you can gain more information and access support for yourself or others, some of which can be found here on our website. In my next post, I plan to share some ways that you can be an ally to the transgender community.

 

 

Bruce to Caitlyn: Understanding Gender Identity

Gender identity, the gender spectrum, and transgender issues have been getting a lot of media attention in recent years. Laverne Cox, from Orange is the New Black was featured as the first openly transgender person on the cover of Time Magazine in 2014. The Amazon series, Transparent, which follows Jefferey Tambor’s character coming out to his self absorbed family as transgender, won the Golden Globe for Best Television Series (musical/comedy). And most recently, the gold medal winning Olympian, father, and step-father to the popular Kardashian-Jenner family, Bruce Jenner has also come out as transgender, in that he identifies internally as a woman.

The anticipated Diane Sawyer interview, in which Jenner shares his story, aired April 24th, 2015. If you missed it, here is a link where you can access segments of the ABC interview.

I, along with many others, tuned in with curiosity, skepticism, and hope. I, admittedly, wasn’t expecting to be influenced too much by this interview. I work with transgender & gender nonconforming clients and feel connected to the issues in our culture around gender & sexuality. I’m not saying I’m an expert by any means, but I would consider myself an ally & LGBTQ affirming therapist. I was interested in watching mainly because I felt hopeful that Bruce was going to share about his experience & possibly demystify some of the tabloid rumors about him as well as the trans population in general. In the midst of watching, I found myself experiencing a number of emotional responses. From sadness & tears, to anger & frustration, followed by compassion & motivation.
I was motivated to respond, in this post, to Jenner’s interview & coming out in hopes of clarifying some of the misconceptions around gender. As I began writing, I realized how many facets there are to consider when exploring gender diversity, so this will be the first in a series of post related to understanding gender identity.

The Basics: Gender, Sex, & Attraction

Gender Binary vs. Gender Continuum/Spectrum

Our society has an unspoken need or tendency to categorize and label; black or white, gay or straight, male or female. This is not necessarily a “good” or “bad” thing. It is simply the way most people have come to understand gender. This may seem rigid & incorrect for many (particularly those who do not fit into these categories), but acknowledging that this perspective continues to be where many people approach gender, is important as we move toward change.

“Western culture has come to view gender as a binary concept, with two rigidly fixed options: male or female, both grounded in a person’s physical anatomy (genderspectrum.org).” At birth we are assigned male or female, but this binary concept fails to account for the rich variation that exists. The gender spectrum is a linear model ranging from 100% male to 100% female, with various states of androgyny in between. This model is much more inclusive & encompasses all people rather than just those who fall into the gender binary.

This “Genderbread Person” is a great illustration explaining the gender continuum, as well as sexuality & expression which can aid in better understanding gender identity.

understanding gender identity
Gender Identity vs. Biological Sex

Biological sex consists of the physical traits we are born with, including genitalia, hormones, body shape, voice, etc. A person’s biological sex does not always correspond to their gender.  Gender identity is a person’s private sense or internal perception of gender, which is separate from physical sex, it is how someone feels inside, whether male, female or somewhere in between or outside these labels.
When our gender identity & assigned sex at birth match up, we are considered gender normative or cisgender. So, in basic terms, being transgender is when what is assigned at birth doesn’t fit with how we feel internally. The way we outwardly convey gender, through dress, demeanor, actions, & interests makes up our gender expression.                                 Gender expression is influenced by gender norms, so someone may have been assigned male at birth but internally identify as female and continue to dress & act male in order to fit into societal norms.

Sexual Orientation

Who we are attracted to, emotionally, romantically, sexually, is independent from our gender & gender identity. People who are straight typically have feelings mainly for people of the opposite sex, while those who are gay or lesbian have these feelings for those of the same sex, & those who are bisexual have feelings for both. People who are asexual experience little to no attraction to either sex. Just as someone who is cisgender (or gender normative) may be gay, straight, bisexual, queer etc., the same is true for someone who identifies as transgender. We all have a gender as well as a sexual orientation and one does not infer the other.

As with any group of people, there is a lot of diversity and variation. The transgender umbrella encompasses all of this variation, from gender queer, gender nonconforming, transsexual, bigender, third sex, gender fluid, and more.

There are many terms & definitions and it is okay to make mistakes, especially when you remain open, curious, and non-judgmental. Understanding gender identity and all of the terms all at once can be a lot to take in. I will provide an overview of terms and do’s & don’ts in my next post. In the mean time, acknowledging & reconsidering our culture’s gender binary model & understanding that just as with personalities, race, & culture, there is a wide array of diversity within gender & sexuality for us to embrace, respect, and value.

Couples & Money

With April 15th & the stress of tax season behind us (most of us anyway), the topic of money may still be lurking in the shadows. It is common for money to be left in the dark, along with other hot button issues, like religion and politics. Not only is money a huge area of conflict for couples, it is a challenge for us individually as well. The money struggles in relationships are not as much about account balances and spending habits, and more about the meanings attached to money. Those meanings are often connected to difficult feelings of shame, guilt, & inadequacy, making it a very unpopular conversation topic. Despite it’s significance, we often choose not to discuss money, its meaning, and its role in our lives. So how can we encourage discussion around this daunting, yet crucial subject?

By familiarizing ourselves with what money represents to us, we can develop a greater understanding of our patterns & behaviors with money, as well as find compassion for the ways our partner relates to money. Just as we adapt various defense mechanisms in response to challenging life events, we develop associations with money depending on what was seen or experienced growing up. Consider what comes up for you when you reflect on your own beliefs and attitudes around money. Do you feel a certain amount of money can provide you with the status you desire, does it contribute to your feeling of safety or stability? It can help to begin considering how or if money was talked about in your home growing up. Was it a topic that was argued about? Was it one that was never discussed? Was one parent a spender & the other a saver? Did your family have a lot of money or did you struggle to make ends meet? We may adapt by going in the extreme opposite direction of a parent or by even by following in their footsteps.   Whatever the case, it is beneficial to first connect to your own experience with money before understanding where your partner is coming from. It will also aid in more clearly expressing your perspective to your partner.

As a couple decide on a time that you will dedicate to talk about your finances. Agree that each of you will do some self-reflecting about your own fears, values, & experiences with money (it can be helpful to write it down). It is important that each person is calm & open, so consider outside stressors when scheduling a time. For instance, the day before a deadline, the week of preparing for a trip, or when guests are visiting from out of town are probably not going to be times when each person can remain calm & avoid distractions. Also decide on the length of the discussion. It is better to have a start & end time you each agree to so that the conversation doesn’t go on and on to where one or both dreads having to revisit the topic in the future.

When talking about any difficult subject it is useful for couples to remain curious, compassionate, and open. You can take turns sharing your childhood messages about money. Ask one another questions or reflect back what you are hearing to let one another know you understand what is being shared. Hopefully this conversation will bring each of you some insight into the other’s relationship with money & you can then begin talking about the concerns you might have about your partner’s money style in relation to your own. Also, acknowledge what you admire or appreciate about your partner’s approach to finances. Positive statements can help couples feel safe enough to continue talking about challenging issues.

Once each of you have shared & heard your money stories you can begin talking about goals for the future. The first goal might simply be to schedule a regular time (weekly/monthly) to talk about finances. Once this accountability is established, each person can create a list of 3-5 short term & long term goals you’d like to work towards as you start making a budget or plan for the future.   Begin creating a budget and incorporating the shared goals that show up on both of your lists. This will allow for greater collaboration and motivation as you begin creating financial plans that will impact you as individuals and as partners.

There are, of course, many issues related to money & relationships and some are more individualized than others. These tips are meant to help you as an individual and as a partner become more open and less fearful of talking about a topic we often avoid. Once you begin shedding light on the subject, it becomes less scary and more approachable, especially if you can come together as a team and address it together.