Empathy, leadership, and “I don’t want to hear it”

CW: suicidality

My first truly positive experience with therapy was in the summer of 2018. It was long overdue; the summer had been absolutely hellish, and I was beginning to flirt with suicidality. My partner knew. My parents probably suspected. I’d talked about finding a therapist for a long time—years—but the thing that got me through the door into an office was when my fear that I might at some point actively want to die eclipsed my anxiety about making the appointment, being in therapy, and paying for it. (While my parents have always been of the Healthcare Concerns First, Money Concerns Later mindset, it’s still anxiety-inducing to be incurring major expenses even when they’re paid for.)

My first session was in August sometime. I’d just moved in with my partner, cut all ties with an intensely toxic person, and was trying to start approaching normality again before school got started. My therapist was attentive as I broke down the extensive stress that had accumulated over the previous six to eight months, and when I came up for air, she had one observation: “it sounds like you’re a very empathetic person.”

I can still remember my brow furrowing; for as long as I could remember, that descriptor had been flung as far away from me as possible. “My brother was always the one who got called that,” I told her. But she continued on, and I realized she was right—that empathy wasn’t just the surface-level definition of being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It was the echoes of others’ emotions that would frequently parade through my body and life.

I spent the next four months with her learning how to control the trait enough that I’d stop self-destructing every time it took the reins.

To be fair, empathy frequently serves me well: it allows me to better connect with those around me, to form strong bonds with peers and friends who are vulnerable and in pain, to help manage the complex emotional needs of many members of a community. It enables me to know when a dispute between two friends can be amicably resolved and when it looks like everyone will need some space. It means I can identify discomfort, despair, and fear like the back of my hand, which both informs and is informed by my own history with trauma. And while that comes with its own complications, all of these things intertwine particularly well with my personal philosophies on activism and leadership, allowing me to leverage my position (and emotional intelligence) to the benefit of those around me with less power. Empathy, along with strong boundaries, is a central pillar of my compassion-led practice.

But my initial thoughts on empathy, as put to my therapist, were muddled. “Doesn’t everyone deal with that?” The answer, apparently, was an emphatic no. And that’s something that doesn’t always live in my mind—as someone who feels too much, many of my priorities revolve around managing that incoming emotion and minimizing its effect on me—but just last week, I was reminded again. An article came across my screen, a bold headline emphasizing the need to cultivate empathy. I’ll admit, I almost rolled my eyes. Can they take some of mine instead? I remember thinking. But I clicked on the article anyway, and as I read, I realized feeling too much of others’ pain wasn’t the only extreme at play.

Some folks don’t process enough of that emotion.

That’s the tricky thing about the empathy journey—when you spend most of your time at one extreme, it can be hard to consider that some folks inevitably spend most of their days at the other. We get so locked into our individual places on the spectrum that it can boggle the mind to entertain the notion that some people’s brains and bodies don’t come hardwired for the same emotional capabilities as ours. Some of us are running MacOS; some of us are running Windows. (Some of us are running Linux, in which case I hope you’re regularly updating your security software.) Just like some of us really suck at soccer and some of us really suck at visual art, we each come with different starting points from an empathetic standpoint.

For those of us who feel too much, I think it can be somewhat easy, once we’ve understood that, to be more adaptive to the inputs and outputs of the people around us. Then again, we’ve sort of always been emotional chameleons. Dealing and interacting with folks whose empathetic tendencies are vastly different than our own will likely always be doable, even if it’s not always healthy.

And let me be clear: it’s not always healthy.

See, empathy becomes a critically necessary tool for folks at the top of power imbalances. Yes, a strong emotional intelligence can be easily abused, but for the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to assume everyone in this hypothetical carries good intentions and wants to have a positive impact on their community wherever possible. For these folks at the top of a power imbalance, empathy helps augment knowledge and contextualize interpersonal relationships. It gives you the this person is nervous about being in this space that you can combine with the this person is traditionally and historically oppressed, marginalized, belittled, and excluded in this space that you know on some basic level but don’t always see directly applied. It’s the stepping stone between this person is uncomfortable and this person’s marginalizations and experiences mean they don’t start out perfectly comfortable and safe. It’s the bridge between this person is saying something that upsets me and this person’s language makes it clear they’re terrified to be speaking out.

Given what y’all know about my work, it’s no surprise that last one is among the most important parts of my leadership practice. It’s only the beginning of a multi-step process: identifying discomfort, named or not, well-articulated or not, should instantly necessitate a leader take a step back and absorb things slowly. As people in positions of power and privilege, we have an obligation to those with less of either to listen carefully. More importantly, we have an obligation to listen to understand, not just to respond. In many cases, active empathy is the bridge across that gap, the deciding factor that allows us to put our own emotions on the backburner because we feel our colleagues’ pain. It’s the leash we put on the lion.

Because, as leaders, we need to be open to and encouraging of critique—of the systems we work within, of the assumptions we place on others, of our own leadership, of how our default settings can be exclusionary and disrespectful and unnecessarily harsh. However, we can’t be open to and encouraging of these things if those people working with, for, and under us are worried we’ll take any attacks on the way things are being done and retaliate with attacks on their character or identity. If that’s how we respond to critique and pushback, whether worded perfectly or sloppily, the idea we perpetuate is this: our colleagues’ discomfort is unimportant if they are anything but compliant and ceaselessly respectful. And that opens the door to abuses of power extending far beyond the scope of anything in this post.

Since starting my postsecondary musical journey over six years ago, I’ve seen this crop up in a whole host of ways. I’ve recounted on at least one occasion the James Levine lecture during my masters degree that devolved into “if you’ve got skeletons in your closet, make sure they stay there.” It’s easy for me to get on the blog and point out how completely and utterly Not Okay that is, but it’s not something I ever felt safe addressing with the professor who gave the lecture. Critique in real time is incredibly difficult. Critique in real time to a person in power you have to continue to work with and be around is even more so. Both require a willingness to be perhaps too vulnerable and a knowledge that the aftermath will not be pretty when something is poorly received. In most of the cases where I’ve ventured out and made the critique anyway, it’s not gone well.

Of course it hasn’t. Because the vast, vast majority of the men and people in power generally in my life believe they are supportive and doing the work to increase equality across the board. On many days, I agree with a lot of you. However, doing that work from a position of power and/or privilege requires accepting the inevitability that you will at some point be deserving of critique. Not just your demographic. You.

Why? We’re all human. We all fuck up. That’s life. But our beliefs and efforts related to increased equality across demographics do not wipe our records clean. And our knee-jerk responses, whenever someone we exert power over speaks up about their discomfort, should not—no, cannot—be to rage and flatten and intimidate them back into a metaphorical corner. We have to extend empathy, feel what they’re feeling, and allow the space and time to listen to understand.

I’ve been on the receiving end of those blows. I’ve made critiques—some near-perfect, some far from it—that have prompted backlash I never could have anticipated. Those instances almost always ensure I never speak up to those particular people again. An unexpected round of anger and intimidation cements the idea that I trusted someone with my vulnerability that I shouldn’t have. Even my risk tolerance only goes so high.

Let me be clear, though: the answer isn’t to tell everyone in every community to suck it up and deal with it. That thinking is deeply rooted in toxic masculinity (to quote Frozen, “conceal; don’t feel”), and continuing to perpetuate those mindsets will only ensure we continually fail those community members who are loaded down with derogatory assumptions because they are gender-marginalized, or queer, or gay, or infantilized, or whatever the case may be. This extends beyond the -isms and into broader abuses of power. It’s a minefield, and I’m proposing a parade. Some explosions are bound to happen.

But the endeavor becomes worth it when I consider the number of people I see leading with compassion and empathy, the folks who understand that no policy is worth enforcing at the expense of the inexperienced and marginalized members of a community. I’d name-drop a few here, but if you follow me on socials, you can probably already name them. Most are early-career. If you’re interested, ask me for my short list; I can give you names in Phoenix and LA. The thing these folks share, though, is a fundamental understanding that even in complicated power dynamics, the people working under you are just as important as the people working above you. More than that, though, those individuals under you are entitled to the same compassion and fundamental respect you’d give anyone else—especially when they’re raising the alarm to tell you something’s wrong. That moment where our empathy sweeps our initial reaction aside to acknowledge a colleague’s discomfort is critical because it’s the moment in which trust is either preserved or destroyed.

You can take me at my word here: anytime I (or most folks in my life) make a point of standing up and saying something, it’s a flying leap off a cliff. It’s a calculated sum of every interaction we’ve ever had with you, a measured probability that weighs the odds of your acceptance and understanding versus your rejection and belittling of the problem at hand. It follows many of the same parameters as the concept of Schrödinger’s rapist, whether we’re dealing with a potential assault or a professional interaction. Every one of these moments is simultaneously made up of more than we thought we’d be brave enough to say and less than what we actually want to communicate. Before it reaches you, it’s already a complicated series of compromises.

And when you—any of you, all of you—spit that back in our faces, the door we’d cracked open shuts firmly. Sometimes it never opens again. I suppose that’s why I blog: to keep a public platform that serves as a sliver of light under that door. I pass you information every week; you try it on for size and see if it’s you. (Of course, it’s very rare that an inspiration for one of these posts actually sees themself in it, but that’s on y’all. Naming names isn’t safe right now.)

It’s a minefield, and I’m proposing a parade. There will be pushback. But it’s necessary work, and if you’re with me, I’m glad to have you aboard. ♦

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