Vulnerable empathy

Vulnerable empathy

My father used to say, “Don’t ask for people to pray for you, you ask the medicine people to pray for your health. You never know who’s praying for what for you, they could be praying for you to be dead. Don’t ask strangers to pray for you.”

In deconstructing my own, internalized colonization, I got very good at not being vulnerable. It wasn’t because I was afraid anyone would use it against me, but because I quickly saw how other (mostly white) people were receiving my vulnerability. They were using it as an excuse to re-center themselves in my life.

After my mother passed in my first year of recovery, an older, white, gay man would see me at meetings and ask how I was doing. He disclosed that his own mother had died a few short years before mine and made it a point to reach out. After some time and repeated “I’m fine” responses, he’d put his hand on my shoulder, look me in the eye and say, “But how are … REALLY?” After a few more “Really, I’m fine” responses, I opened up and told him how alone and guilt-ridden I’d felt; having to be in charge of picking the day the woman who gave birth to you is taken off life support will do a number on you.

Then, after opening up and expressing my feelings in a public space where any stranger could hear, he squeezed my shoulder and said, “Well, you shouldn’t feel like that because … “ and the rest of what he said droned away because all I could hear was the rush of blood to my ears and my heart rate quickening. I felt like yelling, “WHY THE HELL ARE YOU ASKING HOW I’M ‘REALLY’ FEELING IF ALL YOU’RE GOING TO DO IS DISMISS MY ‘REAL’ FEELINGS?” Then, I tuned back in long enough to hear him talking about how he just had to let his own mother go, keeping calm and carrying on.

In moments like that, it suddenly dawns on me how many times this has happened before. How my vulnerability got shot down by dismissive attitudes who were simply trying to impose this worldview on me. Then, once that objective failed, they’d quickly pivot back to themselves. It’s one of the reasons why when I work with someone in mourning, I only talk about myself when asked and I do my best to listen to what’s being said, not sympathizing but empathizing and doing so without retraumatizing myself.

Even so, I’ve learned not to share too much with strangers. The phrase, “misery loves company” is a truism in my world. All I need to do is go onto one of the virtual spaces I’m involved with to see how one miserable person only elicits more unreconciled pain from unhealed people and before too much time has passed, that collective pain turns into anger, not to anyone in particular, but a general, unresolved, unreconciled anger. “Words are medicine” is what my mother told me once, “You can use them to heal or you can use them to hurt. Be careful.” But after a certain point, I tend to become numb from all the little cuts I experience from the white people in the world and the other Black and Brown folks who have to deal with those same white people, too.

So, I open up when and where I find my healing. It’s not for public consumption, it’s for me to go back out into the world to do what I need to do. It’s a very Lakota worldview that we need to be alone to receive our more profound wisdom or healing. Collective spiritual healing is best done when intention is clear and shared, because if 100 people gather in ceremony and just one person is praying contrary to the collective will, it becomes evident very quickly. So, I find my healing with my creator in private and meaningful ways.

It’s also very off-putting for white folks I interact with to not have access to my most personal thoughts and deepest feelings. I recognize that. I’ve also gotten very practiced at not letting their desire to control how I interact with the world not take priority with good boundaries, even though my brownness codes boundaries, privacy and mental health as “secretive,” “closed,” or “hurtful.”

So I have to recognize that white folks in the world are in mourning for their sense of control. So I sit, I don’t sympathize and I empathize without retraumatizing myself.

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