I recently got myself an empathy buddy and am finding it tremendously helpful to receive some non-judgmental emotional support, especially when I'm feeling like crap. The idea is to have a buddy who listens to where I'm at without judging me and occasionally reflects back how I'm feeling and what my needs are. I talk to my empathy buddy every few days and find it an invaluable emotional support.
I believe that CFS is a stress-related illness, and empathy is the most powerful antidote I know for stress. Having an empathy buddy also lessens my isolation and gives me a feeling that someone else understands and cares what I'm going through; all of which lessens my stress. With an empathy buddy I also get to reciprocate which means my attention isn't always just on me and my problems.
The idea of an empathy buddy comes from the Non-Violent Communication (NVC) community, also known as Empathic Communication. NVC is a style of communication developed by Marshall Rosenberg with the aim that everyone can get their needs met by communicating feelings and needs clearly and directly. Showing empathy is also a core skill for relating to other people so it's also a great thing to learn and practice in its own right.
Most of the people I know with Chronic Fatigue have a history of emotional repression and/or past emotional trauma leading to chronic stress. Having an empathy buddy gives you a safe environment to start exploring these feelings by allowing you permission to feel how you feel without being told that you're wrong or should be different.
All the CFS support groups that I've been to appeared to skirt around the issue of how everyone was really feeling, which I believe is why the groups aren't particularly helpful; they turn into a mutual misery discussion without addressing and dealing with feelings and needs directly. The most helpful group I attended was an anxiety support group which dealt almost exclusively with feelings and steered away from discussing the illness entirely.
I recently met a girl through this blog who had been suffering for 15 years with CFS and was overwhelmed with anxiety, yet had never revealed to anyone just how frightened she was for fear of judgement. I offered her empathy and watched her relax right in front of me. This is powerful stuff.
How to Work With An Empathy Buddy
Firstly, you find someone to be your buddy and agree that the purpose of your meetings is to exchange non-judgmental empathy based on feelings and needs. They don't need to have the same issues as you; they don't need to have CFS for instance. Anyone willing to follow the guidelines who you think you can trust will do.
An empathy exchange is not a time for idle conversation or chit-chat; you can potentially do this as well in a single interaction, but make sure you're very clear when you're doing the empathy exchange and when you're just socializing.
Schedule a time to talk for at least an hour, either in person or on Skype. Divide your time like this:
- 5 minutes: Brief check-in of how each of you is feeling.
- 25 minutes: Person A talks, Person B listens
- 25 minutes: Person B talks, Person A listens
- 5 minutes: Brief check-out of how each of you is feeling
- Set a time for your next exchange.
If you want a longer exchange, you can alter the times accordingly. During the main sharing part set a timer to go off 5 minutes before the end of the time so the talker knows when to start wrapping up. Stick to the structure; it helps you both relax into how you're feeling and what you're needing.
Agree at the beginning who will be the talker first, and who will be the listener. It doesn't really matter who goes first since you'll swap over later, but you just need to be clear which role you are in.
Here are some guidelines for each role:
When You're Talking
Talk about how you're feeling, and what you imagine you're needing right now. Avoid going too deeply into story about what has happened in the past. Story is useful only for triggering feelings and identifying needs. Many of us get stuck in our stories too easily and this allows us to avoid the feelings we need to get in touch with to heal.
Stick as much as possible to what is happening right now in the present. As Marshal Rosenberg says in this video, "We don't heal by talking about the past; we heal by talking about what's alive in us right now, stimulated by the past". The important thing is to identify how you're feeling and what you need because this activates the emotional center of the brain which will help relieve your stress.
Use words that describe emotions directly, like happy, sad, angry, upset, scared, anxious, furious, despondent. Avoid words that describe mental states like depressed, or physical states like tired. Instead, say how you feel about being depressed (e.g. sad) or tired (e.g. frustrated). Remember, you're trying to trigger your brain into releasing the pent-up energy behind the emotion.
If you start to cry, let the tears flow; crying is a healing stress-relief. Avoid dramatic judgements like saying that you “burst into tears”, and don't try to suppress the tears either. We've been conditioned to believe that crying is a sign of weakness and many of us have suppressed this emotion to the detriment of our health. If your tears shut down out of fear of what the listener might think, you're experiencing shame, so express the emotion behind this by saying so: “Now I'm feeling ashamed of crying in front of you”. Stick with what's happening for you in the present.
The emotional parts of our brain are primitive and child-like, so it's probably better to say that you're frightened or scared than use more adult words like anxious. Adult western vocabulary tends to steer away from emotions and the purpose here is to express and feel our way through the feelings, not to avoid or rationalize them.
If you're clear on what you're needing add it in to what you share. Don't worry if you're not clear, as the listener's role is to identify this from what you're saying.
You may feel emotions arising unexpectedly which may be frightening if you're not used to receiving non-judgmental empathy. Don't shy away from the feelings by rationalizing or going into story about something else. Just express how you feel in the moment and wait for some empathy from your listener.
Try not to go over time; respect the boundaries that you've set between you. If it's an emergency and you desperately need a lot of empathy, try to say so at the beginning so the listener knows they may not get to share this time. Line up a future meeting where they can share and you just listen. If you find yourself needing a lot of emergency empathy that's preventing mutual sharing with your buddy, get yourself another empathy buddy so you have more than one person supporting you.
When You're Listening
Your role as the listener is to provide a safe, non-judgemental space for the talker to share in while you identify how they are feeling and what they need. For the most part you just listen with this in mind. Every now and then when the talker pauses, offer a reflection following the NVC formula:
“Are you feeling X because you're needing Y?”
The talker will generally clarify whether you are accurate, if not correct you, and then continue sharing how they are feeling. Their feelings may change during the exchange, in which case you pick up on the new feelings and the needs behind them.
You don't always have to stick to the exact formula; try to vary it a bit so the talker doesn't feel like they're talking to a robot. Always remember it's all about feelings and needs, and try to communicate what you're hearing clearly. If you get stuck, just listen or use the formula: it works.
Identifying feelings and needs may be new for you since we're not educated to communicate in this way, so cut yourself some slack if you get it “wrong”. Just keep listening for feelings and needs in the talker. If you experience feelings of fear or shame around getting the reflection wrong, share that with your partner during your turn as talker so you can get empathy to heal the fear of getting things wrong that many of us have.
You are not obligated to meet the needs of the talker; your role is simply to identify what they are. Some needs may end up being met during the exchange itself; for instance the need to be heard, to be taken seriously, or to feel understood. Other needs remain the responsibility of the talker. Avoid trying to rescue of fix the situation for them either during or after the empathy exchange. Treat the other person as capable of finding ways to meet their own needs. If you do end up meeting other needs they have outside the empathy exchange, be clear on what needs of your own you are meeting in doing so. Keep the boundaries of the empathy exchange clear.
Keep all judgements about the person and what they share to yourself. Focus on how they feel and what they need, not what you think they're thinking. Avoid criticizing, making them wrong, problem-solving, offering suggestions, telling them it's all going to be OK or trying to fix things for them.
Your buddy may go through a range of emotions that they have not previously been comfortable sharing, and that you may not be entirely comfortable hearing. Notice when you're triggered emotionally by what the other person shares and share your feelings with them during your turn as speaker or during your final checkout. If you still feel these feelings later, come back to them in a future empathy exchange to get some empathy for them yourself.
You are not responsible for your buddy's feelings nor for resolving them. If they start to cry for instance, it's because they've contacted some pain or grief that they are now healing. Allow them the space to cry for as long as it takes, bearing in mind the time agreement between you. A big issue may require empathy over several sessions or with several buddies to fully heal. Even then, healing tends to happen in layers so the same issue may come up on a deeper level later on.
Avoid giving sympathy or there-there responses. If the talker seems stuck in story or is going around in circles without identifying feelings, interrupt them gently to ask them “How are you feeling right now about this?” If you get impatient or bored, it could be a sign that the talker is avoiding feelings or it could indicate painful feelings of your own that you need empathy for when it's your turn to talk.
Getting empathy can trigger strong emotions that you may not previously have felt in full force. If it becomes overwhelming, get some professional help for what you're going through. I believe that empathy is the key healing ingredient in all effective therapies, but your empathy buddy isn't a therapist. Don't expect them to solve your problems for you and don't rely on them as your sole means of emotional support.
Your relationship with your empathy buddy may go through all the normal ups and downs of a regular relationship or friendship. If your buddy triggers strong feelings, share them in your next empathy exchange and request empathy for them. If your buddy gets defensive or critical, share how you felt in that moment and ask them simply to identify your feelings and needs. Your buddy may trigger feelings in you that aren't their fault or they may need time to learn how to offer empathy effectively. And vice-versa. If you feel unsafe or it doesn't seem to be working, find another buddy who can offer empathy in a way that makes you feel safe.
Sharing feelings is the basis of all close relationships, so don't be surprised if you end up feeling close to your buddy. I've even experienced feelings of jealousy hearing my buddy talk about her other empathy buddies! We've also had exchanges where we shared our feelings about the relationship itself and triggers that made us feel unsafe with each other, so we could get empathy to resolve our projections onto each other and establish a deeper level of trust.
Beware of becoming overly intimate with your empathy buddy, especially at the expense of your primary relationship. If have a partner, consider having a weekly empathy exchange with them where you follow this same structure. It's likely to do wonders for your relationship.
Here are some other resources that I highly recommend for learning to be a good Empathy Buddy:
If you'd like some empathy or want to line up an empathy buddy to get some mutual emotional support around CFS, leave a comment and I'll get back to you.