Being met with empathy

Briefly at one point I touched on how I find the difference between being met with sympathy and empathy so fascinating.

And I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately – the difference between how I feel after talking with certain people, the questions I have about why, the people I gravitate towards in the middle of different situations.

What I find extra interesting is that there isn’t necessarily a rhyme or reason to who these people are. We might have best friends who sympathetically hear your story but they’re not the ones you will turn to in times of crisis. Because they’re the ones who sit in front of you, and nod as you’re talking, and say “I’m always here for you!” and it’s very sweet but in your gut you know it’s more of a script they’re following and less of a from-my-soul-I-mean-this. They’re the ones who you leave often feeling just as anxious, unresolved, and maybe fearful about how you were perceived.

What we really need in our lives are these friends, the ones who meet us with empathy. Compassion. Love. Who don’t just hear us but listen. Who sit with you and nod along with you. These are the ones who look deep into your eyes and say, “Call me. Anytime. I am here.” And your core just knows – yes. They mean this. I could, and I might, take them up on this. And you feel loved, and heard, and wrapped in a blanket of compassion. And your fears about judgment and blame and disgust and shame go out the window because in those moments, in those conversations, there was no space for them to exist.

And different people serve different purposes in our lives and I don’t think there’s a thing wrong with that. But I encourage you – find one or two people, who in your gut, you just know – they will hear me. They will listen. They will love me through it. They will say they’ll be there and they will show up and they will mean it.

These are the people who will make you lighter. Stronger. Who will hold things for you when you can’t carry them. Who want to hold those things for you. Who will love you through it – any of it.

These are the people.

Who lift us up, propel us forward, carry our stuff.

These are the people we need.

MCAS Day One

Today, I left work angry, frustrated, and discouraged.

No, this is not typical.

But today, MCAS began.

Today, I sat with my sweet little 3rd grade student from 9 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon, while she struggled through a test that she shouldn’t have to take.

Since she qualifies for special education under a language-based learning disability, she is eligible for some MCAS accommodations.

She was allowed to use a place marker to keep her place while reading.

But she couldn’t decode all the words. Let alone comprehend them. Because she’s a third grader with a severe LLD.

I was allowed to clarify directions. But “Yup, so you read the story and answer the questions,” doesn’t help when she has no idea what she’s reading.

She was allowed to type her responses. But that didn’t help when she couldn’t comprehend the story or what the questions were asking.

She doesn’t qualify for the “read aloud” accommodation. Because, to qualify for that, you have to be a “virtual non-reader”. Being significantly below grade level isn’t enough. Because, if I knew the Russian alphabet and could read a few basic words, I should be able to comprehend stories, right? Not to mention the fact that even if she could decode everything, which she can’t, she’s not comprehending. Because she has a disability. 

So today, I sat with her while she struggled to sound out each word in about 10 2-4-page stories. Tried not to tear up when she tried to read the questions, and then laboriously re-read the story, trying so hard to figure out the answer. Tried not to bang my head in frustration on her behalf when she looked at me and said, “I don’t know what this is even saying.”

I tried not to think about how detrimental this is. Because although I made light of it (by the end I was “woo-hoo!!!-ing every time she answered a question, and saying things like, “Only two more yucky questions!” to make her smile), she’s not stupid. In fact, she’s one of the smartest little kids I know. She knew she couldn’t do it. She knew she was supposed to be able to. She knew that if I had been able to help her, encourage her to use strategies, read it to her, she would’ve been able to do better (she said as much). She took breaks where I’d do what I could to make that little perfectionist girl, who hates getting anything wrong, smile as best I could. But it didn’t stop her from sighing, resigned, and saying, “It’s fine. I’ll just keep going.”

And then by the end, when she had given it everything she had – she had to do the sample PARCC session. Which really made MCAS look like a piece of cake, and that’s saying something. She looked at me and said, “This is so hard. I don’t even understand any of it. I’m just going to guess because I can’t do this.”

If we strive for language-based teaching, PARCC is the exact opposite.

“I think they’re hard, too.” I offered.

She looked up, skeptical. “Really?”

“Really.” And sadly, I wasn’t lying.

And so for yet another year, I think, there has got to be a better way. A better way than wasting our teaching time and their learning time on this test. A better way than having testing send us backwards in self-esteem and self-confidence. We spend so much energy teaching our students that having a learning disability doesn’t make them stupid, but really, we might as well be saying, “You’re not stupid. But! You’re going to have to spend some hours doing things that yes is for kids in your grade and yes you’re as smart as them but no you’re not going to be able to read most of it or answer most of it, but don’t even give it a second thought, you’re so smart and this means nothing!”

And we do what we can, and we joke and smile and stay calm and get through it. Year after year after year. There’s no other option.

But it shouldn’t be this way to begin with, where we struggle in this way. Where intelligence is measured by this test. Where a successful education is measured through this test. This test doesn’t say anything. It doesn’t capture how smart my students are (and they are often smarter than me). It doesn’t capture their personalities. It doesn’t capture their strengths. It tells us nothing valuable.

There’s got to be a better way.

This is tolerance

The following are snippits of conversations that have transpired between kids over the past few months.

The following snippits are proof that things are changing (for the better).

The following snippits give me hope.

4th graders.

“I’m going to draw the kid and the mom and the dad.”

“I have two moms.”



“Do you have two moms?”

“Nope, I have a mom and a dad.”


8th graders.

“Bruce Jenner is the man.”

“Dude. You can’t say that anymore. It’s Caitlin Jenner and he’s now a girl.”

“I can still call him Bruce.”

“No, you really can’t. He’s a woman, and his name is now Caitlin.”

8th graders.

A problem-solving scenario reads: “A student made fun of a boy for liking the color pink.”

“That’s so mean. And it doesn’t even make sense. There’s no such thing as boy colors and girl colors.”

“Yeah. Like, at the hospital, they only picked pink and blue to tell the boys from the girls. But those aren’t even boy and girl colors, it was just a system they came up with.”

6th graders.

“Can we use ‘they’ instead of ‘he’ and ‘him’ in that example?”


7th graders.

“So for example, if a boy was wearing a suit….”

“At my sister’s school there are a lot of transgender students. Anyone can wear anything and some people are boys and some are girls and some aren’t really either.”

5th graders.

“Ooh, can I be purple?”

“You like purple?”

“Yeah, it’s the best color.”

“Yeah, true.”

6th graders.

“That rainbow you’re drawing is SO beautiful.”

“You like rainbows?”

“Oh yes, they’re magical.”

“I like rainbows too. We have that in common.”

Saying what you need to say

The other day, I got a message from a friend who sent me something she wrote. It was akin to a journal entry, and with it, she had simply said something along the lines of, “Had a rough day and wrote about it if you want to read.”

Of course I want to read, I thought. I read through it, and immediately messaged her back, letting her know how glad I was that she shared, how much compassion I felt for her experience, how I could relate and understood, and that I would be happy to hear more, read more, or talk at any point.

What she did – reaching out, without qualifying it, without apologizing, without drowning herself in shame, is still hard for me. Not always, but often. Especially when what I want to reach out and talk about feels big.

And I get stuck in spinny loops of thinking, but the problem with spinning thoughts is that when you’re having them, they seem incredibly logical.

Maybe I should call her and ask if we can chat. Wait. She’s been so busy at work, and I remember her talking about how tired she is. So really, if I asked for an hour of her time, it would be adding to her stress, therefore burdening her, therefore I am a burden. Good thing I thought this through, not a good plan to reach out.

Yes, of course, looking at that now it’s clear how illogical it is. But when you’re in it, you don’t see it.

Which is why I have conversations like this with my therapist:

Me: So this week I’ve been really feeling like I need to reach out and connect and talk about those things on my mind but I just haven’t.

Her: Oh? Why?

Me: Because those things are big and heavy and I don’t want to be a burden and dump on someone.

Her: Nothing you’ve ever told me indicates that you unfairly dump on people.

Me: But people are busy and have their own stressors and I don’t want to add to that.

Her: Hmmmm. [eyebrows raise]

Me: I know, I KNOW. I already heard your voice in my head yesterday about it, telling me, What would you do if the tables were turned? Would you view a friend needing to check in with you, because she was having a hard time, as burdensome and ‘too much’, even if it was a big or heavy topic? And no, the answer is no.

Her: [laughs, because in therapy, I’m hilarious]

Me: But it’s different. I mean, I know it’s not actually different. But it is. I just worry and feel afraid.

That’s the part where she encourages me, dispels all my arguments, and then (nicely) tells me that enough is enough. That if I need connection, if I need a conversation, I need to ask for it. I need to not sit back and hope that someone turns into a mind-reader and figures out that there’s something I want to talk about. I need to think of those people who have always responded to me with empathy, and not just sympathy, those people who have unconditionally said, I’m here, say whatever it is you need to say, no matter how big or intense. I need to go up to those people and, just as my friend did by sending me her message, say to them, Okay. I need to say it.


Quote by Maya Angelou


I also saw this article yesterday, which seemed to tie in nicely as well, and also help me sort through the thought processes that I default to. Lots of thoughts on that.

I am so interested in this topic, in trying to figure it all out. Does anyone else do this, where there are times that you hold yourself to a higher (or lower) standard than you would others? Where you can so clearly act in one way, but are afraid of doing it when the tables are turned? I am equally fascinated by the difference in how I feel when I am met with empathy vs. sympathy. More to write on that some day.

Anyway, I’m working on it. Working on reaching out, making the moves, despite the fear, despite the anticipatory worry. Whatever it’s about, however big or small it seems. It’s a good exercise, really, to ask for what we need. And something I suspect that many of us don’t do enough.

Advertising Anxiety

When working with a client who stutters, we often talk to them about “advertising”. By that, we mean being open about their stutter. Sometimes we’ll have a client go into another therapist’s office and tell them, “I was hoping to talk to you today about stuttering. What do you know about it?” Or they might ask to borrow a stapler, but stutter while they’re doing it (on purpose). Other times they’ll be ready to tell a new adult, “I stutter, and this is what I’m working on.” The idea being that the more they are open about stuttering, the more their own internal stigmas are broken down. Additionally, the more open they are, the less likely they are to have avoidance behaviors (avoiding people, places, and words, because of their stutter).

This is the type of advertising I have learned to do about my anxiety when I’m in a medical setting.

I don’t do well in a doctor’s office of any capacity, and I have recognized that I likely never will be able to be present in those settings without any anxiety. But for many years, this knowledge, this belief of I have panic attacks in medical settings directed my behavior. I was completely out of control – or rather, my anxiety was completely in control.

[Apologies in advance – the next part is gross but hey, it’s all about being real, right?]

For years I passed out every single time that I had blood drawn, or a TB test. But passing out wasn’t the worst part. I knew people who fainted from things like that, and let me tell you, I would’ve paid money to only have fainting be the issue. What would happen to me is that a heavy, hot, feeling of unreal-ness would pass over me. I’d start to get tunnel vision. And then instantly, nausea and an urgent stomachache would follow. My body would go directly into flight-or-fight mode, and shut down, trying to empty. And this meant maybe by vomiting and maybe from my bowels. Well, you can’t really do both at once, or else it’s going to be messy and disgusting. And it’s even messier and more disgusting if it happens in an exam room. So in this split second, I’d realize I needed to bolt to the bathroom before any or all of these things happened. Usually I’d make it to the bathroom, my system would empty in one way or another, and I would pass out on the toilet seat.

Lovely, right?

The memories of these unpleasant panic attacks combined with my pre-existing fear and anxiety about a doctor’s office in general led me into a cycle for years: knowing it would happen, therefore it would, therefore confirming that it happened, therefore knowing it would happen next time, etc. I’d sit in the chair, and wait for the needle, hoping I could fake it this time around, never succeeding.

Until one day about 5 years ago I realized that I didn’t have to be helpless.

I began to advertise.

“I need to lie down when you take my blood,” I started telling the techs. “I am a fainter and do better reclined.”

“I’m going to listen to my ipod while you do that procedure,” I told a dentist.

“I appreciate you telling me exactly what you’re doing while you’re doing it, but can you actually talk to me about anything else instead?” I’d ask the doctor.

“I am about to pass out,” I told a doctor once. “I need to recline and I need something cold for my head.”

“I know you’re not doing an exam today, but I just need to let you know that I tend to get very anxious in medical settings. So if I step out into the hall or something, I’m fine, I just need a minute.” I told a new specialist I was seeing.

“So do you think it’ll snow tomorrow?” I’d ask a technician, not caring about the weather and not knowing if she did, but knowing I needed to distract myself from what was happening.

And it began to work. I had a TB test where I didn’t faint. I had blood drawn where I didn’t pass out. I sat on an exam table without the white-hot unreal fog coming over me. Breaking the cycle, making me believe I could be in control of this.

My expectation was never – and is not today – that I will never have these episodes again. But more that in being up front about it, the fear is out of me and into the world. They know what to expect so there are no surprises if I rush off to the bathroom or suddenly dart out of the room. One lab technician thanked me, saying, “I’m glad you said something. We’d always rather know, just in case.”

I used to not speak up out of – you guessed it – shame. Feeling that I should be able to handle this and it shouldn’t be such a big deal and what was my problem, anyway. But guess where that got me? Correct. Nowhere.

So now, I advertise.

Dispelling a piece of that shame, each time I speak up.

Gaining weight: the taboo topic

I would like to discuss a subject that, in this culture, is rarely, if at all discussed: gaining weight.

I’m serious.

People write about losing weight all the time. They post before and after pictures, they post their meal plans, they vent about their struggles to limit themselves, to count calories, to be constantly conscious of what they’re eating.

And the support they receive is overwhelming.

The comments always have the same themes:

“Story of my life. I’ve got to get back on a diet.”

“Wow, I’m so inspired.”

“Think about how great you’ll feel! It’s worth it!”

Losing weight is talked about all the time. People mention it constantly, or at least subtly refer to it. And it immediately becomes a source of commiseration, an unhealthy way to bond.

But gaining weight isn’t talked about. And I haven’t talked about it, because I could anticipate the reactions:

“Lucky you, I wish that was my problem!”

“It must be so nice to get to eat whatever you want!”

“If only I weighed as much as you, I would be happy!”

And I knew that even if people didn’t write or say those comments, they’d think them. Because we live in a distorted culture where people believe those things and thrive off of the negative thought patterns. And so I have kept silent.

Except then it hit me: By keeping silent, I am perpetuating skinny-shaming. I am perpetuating shame. That goes against everything I believe in.

So I’m talking. In the spirit of being real.

I am at a point where I need to gain weight. It doesn’t matter why. It doesn’t matter the cause. Ask me if you’d like, because I’ll sure talk about it, but speculating and harping on the cause just supports that yes, we live in a distorted culture. Because, do people harp and speculate on why someone needs to lose weight? Right. The point is, just as someone may need to lose weight to be healthy, I need to gain it.

It’s not fun. It’s not pleasant. I too have to count calories. I too have to think about and plan all of my meals. Just as it may be frustrating to stop eating when you want to continue, it’s equally frustrating to force yourself to keep eating when your body is screaming at you to stop. I too can’t wait until it’s finished and I’m where I want to be and need to be. It’s not pleasant to ignore hunger signals. It’s disappointing to step on the scale only to be disappointed. It’s not pleasant to know your body is not as healthy as it was. It’s frustrating to want to work out or go to a hot yoga class and know you shouldn’t. It’s no different than trying to lose weight. The end goal is the same, the struggle is the same: get to a healthy place, for your body.

So please – I beg of you. Help me stop this double standard where it’s okay to move down, but not up. Where it’s congratulated for even talking about losing weight, but criticized for talking about gaining. Where people feel that they can’t commiserate about the struggle, because the struggle might be happening in a different directions.

And hopefully we’ll get to a point, maybe in this lifetime, where weight doesn’t even need to be talked about.

Help make that happen.

He told me

Joey is amazing. (You can read more about Joey here, here, and here.). He’s amazing all day every day, but tonight, in this moment, here is why he’s currently kicking some serious butt:

I wrote out the “Plan” of what we had to accomplish during our session. He read it and asked, “What do you mean ‘think of questions and give answers’?”

“Good question,” I replied. “So, we will read the book for number 1. Then for number 2, we’re going to use the question words and think of questions about the story. Then we’ll have to figure out the answers to the questions.”

He scrunched up his face. “I don’t get it,” he said.

This is so big. Please tell me you get how big this is. Years ago, maybe even months ago, Joey wouldn’t have told me he didn’t get it. And I don’t know why – maybe because his neurons didn’t yet have the association that a direction + a swirly foggy sensation = I’m confused + need to say something to convey that. But he would’ve nodded and smiled, and halfway through I would’ve realized that he had no idea what we were doing. Or seemingly out of nowhere I would’ve seen seemingly random behaviors – all a way of his brain trying to convey the confusion. But today? He knew. He knew and he TOLD me! Self-awareness! Self-advocacy! Communicating! Wait, it gets better.

So I wrote it down for him, just like I did on the whiteboard. I silently wrote:

-Read book
-Think of questions to ask about each page
-Answer questions

He silently followed along. He clarified (he clarified!), “You’ll write the answers to the questions. That’s fair.” And I agreed. And then he looked up at me, again, nodded, and confirmed, “Oh. Okay. I get it now.”

He told me. Again!

And so, I did my try-not-to-get-teary thing and told him how awesome it was that he told me when he was confused, and told me when it made sense in his brain again, and he wasn’t really into the mushy-gushy and was really just ready to read the book, so we moved right on, but really I didn’t move on because I’m still sitting here thinking about how awesome he is.

And how some small things are not small. Some small things are huge. And how the skills are there, and they come, and how they come in their own way, in their own time. And how we need to – always – meet them and their neurology halfway. And how I just feel so blessed and privileged to be the one who gets to witness these incredible successes.

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