Thursday, June 15, 2023

Empathy and Allowing Ourselves to Say No Mustn’t Be Based on Status


If you believe you have to like someone in order to empathise, your version of “empathy”, of recognising others, comes from your sense of whether you like and value them. That’s a status judgement. A part of you, on some level, considers whether you regard somebody as being worthy of empathy. As a result, you will struggle not just with your interpersonal relationships but your relationship with yourself.

I recently watched the Harry and Meghan documentary. Even though I have little interest in the royals or the couple, I felt for them. Most of us can barely cope with one sucky comment on our socials or from our family! Harry and Meghan serve as very public evidence of our societal discomfort with family estrangement and boundaries. I also recognise that, like many families, the royals are set in their ways and operate based on status and tradition.

Many families behave dysfunctionally and believe it’s for the good of “everyone”. To be clear, it isn’t. Sure, certain people benefit, i.e. the higher-status ones, but others don’t. The family tradition might be to suck it up, not complain, and keep the secrets. These are pretty big (and inappropriate) asks that take a toll on our emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. No one, even family, has a right to your inner peace. Also, just because other family members have toed the line before, it doesn’t mean everyone should. It doesn’t mean that how the family operates isn’t a problem.

Family issues and drama exist and continue due to a false sense of obligation and lack of empathy. Sticking to family dysfunction isn’t an obligation, though.

When we refuse empathy for others, we also refuse it for ourselves.

It’s also safe to say that we like and dislike people for logical, respectful reasons and nonsensical and even abusive ones. It’s why we wonder why someone we don’t like doesn’t like us.

Empathy isn’t worthiness-based, though. It’s got nothing to do with your degree of personal relationship with the person in question. Empathy isn’t contingent on what you do or don’t possess or how much pity, superiority or inferiority you have. It’s not a status thing, despite what some in society would have you believe.

Either you’re capable of empathy (or could be), and you practice and cultivate it, or you’re incapable.

You might not, for example, be able to relate to being a royal, having wealth, or fame. Perhaps you have no idea what it’s like to be the only brown face.

Surely, though, you can relate to someone, possibly people, acting out and even punishing you for saying no, for not following the herd, or for daring not to want what they do. 

  • Ever been treated differently due to your appearance or something you can’t change?
  • Have you been judged, ridiculed or dismissed over your mental health?
  • Has someone (or a group of people) disliked you or treated you differently despite your not having done something “wrong”?
  • Is there something or someone that brings out the feeling that no matter what you do, it’s never enough? Perhaps there’s someone who it feels like they could get away with murder, but you can’t put a pinky toe out of place.
  • Does someone in your life seem to get all the praise, opportunities and free passes while you don’t?
  • Have you tried to avoid rocking the boat, only to still be the target of accusations, criticism, or conflict?
  • Has someone or a group of people harmed you and then trashed you for calling a spade a spade and not keeping it a secret? Perhaps you’ve been mistreated by someone and had loved ones not believe you or expect you to grin and bear it.

As humans, we all desire acceptance the most and, conversely, fear rejection to the same degree.

Our experiences may differ. We might not relate to someone’s circumstances. Still, we do know what it’s like to feel as if we do or don’t belong. We know what it’s like to feel rejected, dismissed, or not good enough, despite our attempts to please. 

We live in a society with legacy conditioning that only some people are allowed to say no—and that’s just not true. 

If you buy into the idea that only some people are worthy of empathy; only some are worthy of love, care, trust and respect; and only some are allowed to say no and hold power, then you are part of the problem, not the solution. And that might not be because you’re wielding these viewpoints to take advantage and abuse but because you don’t believe you are worthy of these things, making it that much easier to judge others as superior or inferior to you. 

The next time you feel discomfort or intense dislike about someone saying no, halt.

Pause for a moment.

Acknowledge what your response communicates about your relationship with no. What’s the baggage behind it?

Try to be honest with yourself about why you think that person’s no is so problematic. Consider what their no reflects about an unspent no in your own life. The more you say yes and no authentically, the more empathy and compassion you have–for yourself and others. Consider where you’re not saying no when you need, want to, or should and break this tradition.

You don’t need to like someone or deem them “worthy” to empathise with their struggle or recognise their humanness. Empathy doesn’t need your preferences and biases; it requires you to recognise that others have a position even if, even though, it’s different from yours. 

The Joy of Saying No by Natalie Lue book cover. Subtitle: A simple plan to stop people pleasing, reclaim boundaries, and say yes to the life you want.

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