Empathy. Rocket Fuel For Human Connection

A good working definition of “Empathy” is:  “The feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions”

I’ve been having this feeling a lot lately, as I closely follow the series of wildfires in Sonoma County. 26 years ago my home and neighborhood were literally obliterated by a firestorm as I fled in terror with my 10-year-old daughter.  We had nothing but the clothes on our backs.  So yes, I know how it feels.  I hear the stories and they are my story.

I also hear wonderful, amazing, and heroic stories of rescue and stories that illustrate the outpouring of compassion and generosity that our fellow human beings are capable of.  These stories are also familiar as I recall how many people were instantly available to my family to help us. We could not believe it!  I remember my 10-year-old daughter being dumbfounded at the evacuation center. “Mom”, she said, “Why are these people being so nice to us”?

Recalling my daughter’s surprise that people were “so nice” got me to thinking even further about empathy.  There are situations all over the world, or even in our own back yards, that deserve our compassion. And yet most of the time we are pretty oblivious to them.  Why is this?

Maybe the answer is partly embedded into the definition of “Empathy” We “share” another persons experiences and emotions much more easily when we have had these experiences and emotions.  We know these feelings intimately when we have had them.

Research bears this out.  Sadly, we are much more “empathic” to individuals or sets of people when they are “like” us in some identifiable way.  We are more compassionate to members of our own “tribe”

However, there is hope.  There is a way to feel more compassion and empathy to people who seem different than we are.

The answer is, Just listen.  Listen to the stories that people tell about the experiences they have had. Through the act of being fully present to another human being as they tell their story, the empathy can be built. You can enter into another persons experience this way.  Neurologically, the formation of “Mirror neurons” happens when we are in deep connection to another as we listen and respond to what they say. These “Mirror” neurons are the basis of empathy. A vast majority of us are capable of forming them.

Empathy is the basis for forming deep connections in romantic relationships and friendships.  It’s also the basis for finding compassion for groups of people who are different than we are. I think of empathy as “rocket fuel” because it works fast and efficiently to bring people into true “heart to heart” connection with one another.

And…it can be learned and practiced every day

Overcoming “Learned Helplessness” In Your Relationships Yes You Can!!!

If you’ve ever worked on a task over and over again and “failed” repeatedly, you know what its like to feel powerless. You may want to just “give up” and decide this is something you cannot do. You may also feel like a “victim” of overwhelmingly difficult circumstances.

Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness are the hallmark of “Depression”. Such feelings may be fleeting and changeable as circumstances improve. For some people however, a depressed mood occurs over and over again…as though it is worn into the groove of a person’s psyche. Then it’s more difficult to “lift” such a mood, and it becomes a “depressive disorder”

A key part of depressive disorders is the “negative thinking” that comes along with them. It can be difficult to talk to a depressed person…as they tell us over and over that things will just never get better. They want to give up trying and just resign themselves.

Thankfully, the fields of positive psychology and cognitive behavioral therapy have come up with some solutions to negative thinking. These solutions are based on the assumption that depressed people have fallen into a state of “learned helplessness’’. The “helplessness” is actually “learned”, as anything else is “learned” by a series of instances where a person cannot escape negative outcomes. Think for example of a woman in an abusive relationship she cant seem to escape, or a child who simply “gives up” on his school work. “Its just too hard”…he will tell you. Pretty soon this child will be reluctant to try anything new. He will assume failure before even giving it a shot.

The good news is, that most anything “learned” can be “unlearned” You can “unlearn” your feelings of helplessness by developing a positive “explanatory” thinking style that looks carefully and dispassionately at the “why” when something negative happens.

The important thing is you “open up” rather than “close down” your thinking about a situation. You become curious about the complex dynamics that may have created the situation and you are open to “out of the box” solutions.

Problems in relationship are no different than other problems, I believe. I have seen individuals who “give up” on solving their relationship difficulties. Here are some guidelines I always suggest to people for developing the most effective mindset for solving relationship roadblocks.

  1. Think of yourself as an explorer and problem solver who assumes the answer is “out there”. Its just waiting to be discovered
  2. Become curious about yourself and your partner. What makes each of you tick? How did you get this way?
  3. Try to rid your speaking and communication language of “victim” and/or “blaming” vocabulary. The words we use are tremendously important to the way a problem is conceptualized
  4. When you see yourself as a “victim” and the other as the “perpetrator” your options close down. There is nowhere to go and you are effectively “trapped” within your own mind. See yourself instead as a dynamic/moving part of whatever is going on. Whatever you yourself are doing to perpetuate the situation…you just have to not do it. You can change your own behavior. It’s actually the only thing you know you can reliably change. Even a person in an abusive situation can choose to leave if he/she believes the choice is possible.

Bottom Line….You’re not Helpless. You never are in the truest part of your being

Follow The Money

An Important Key To Relationship Health:

One of the first questions I ask of a new couple when assessing the resiliency of their relationship relates to how money is “handled” in their day to day lives with one another.  Specific questions might be:  “Where do you actually put the money that one or both or you earns?”   “Do you comingle everything or have separate accounts?”   “Who pays the bills and how do you decide on minor or major purchases?”  Answers to all of these questions can reveal a lot about how the power dynamics work with this couple.  Also, I can tell by the answers I get and the “tone” of voice with which the answers are given weather money is an issue of contention with this couple.

For example, if I hear that all the money is “comingled” together then I know that for this couple, at least in theory, there is a sense of “what’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is mine” The money is “Ours”.  However, if I also hear that   one member of the couple tightly controls “access” to the money, and even the most minor purchase must be approved in advance…then I know there is a   “power” issue.  I may also hear of large purchase decisions being made “unilaterally” by one member of the couple. This also becomes an issue.  If the money is truly “ours”, should not we both be a part of decision making when it comes to spending it?  On the other hand, it may feel   “petty” and controlling when a household item is needed and you don’t have the autonomy to make this purchase.  It can feel quite insulting actually. Is your partner a co-equal or a parent?

The issue of personal autonomy can be perhaps handled by maintaining separate accounts and having an agreement about who handles which of the mutual bills. It may seem more “fair” in this case that you pay into mutual household bills according to how much money you make.  I have seen cases though, where one member of the couple  (usually the larger wage earner) insists on a 50/50 arrangement.  It always seems to me in these cases that there is an issue of trust and lack of generosity here. You are, after all, not roommates but a couple.  Should there not be some sense of looking out for one another and sharing your resources?  What does this mean about the other things you share in your life?  Does this mean that you can’t take the same vacation together because one of you can’t afford it?

A third option for people is a “hybrid” option where each has their own account, and also each contributes to a joint account for mutual ongoing household expenses. It has the advantage of allowing both people to maintain some kind of personal autonomy within the marriage and perhaps even “surprising” your partner with an unexpected gift that is part of your separately held money.  Obviously, this scheme will not work unless each member of the couple is actually making money to contribute to his/her t account.  Also, I think the danger of it is that keeping a separate account can become keeping a “secret” account.  What I always advise in this case is complete transparency between the couple.  You each should know how much money is held in your partners account.  Also, what is the end goal of this money? Is some of it being saved for a family vacation, or a child’s education?  Does some portion get to be “Mad money” that I can buy myself a toy with? If so, what if your partner does not have as much “extra” as you do?  How does that feel?

I’ve seen couples handle their money in each of the ways mentioned above and I think they can all be successful.  Here are some principles to keep in mind:

  • Complete honesty and transparency are a must. You must each know how much money is available, where it is coming from, and how much exactly needs to be budgeted for each household related expense. Family budget meetings can be really helpful.  Decide who will pay which bill, in the same way you decide how to divide all family chores and responsibilities
  • Establish a “Threshold” for how much an item needs to cost for it to be a purchase that needs to be agreed upon.  For every couple its different, but it needs to be set at some level.  If it’s a major purchase it affects the whole family and may mean a priority.  You need to agree on the priority
  • Discuss your values and life goals with each other frequently.  Do you have the same ambitions?  Do you agree on such things as public or private schools, or how much to spend on a house or a car?  Sometimes these things need to be discussed and negotiated.  Talk about how money was spent in your family of origin, to try to figure out your differences
  • Always keep in mind, if you are part of a couple and/or part of a family that its not just you anymore. The happiness and security of your partner and/or your children should be of utmost importance. Be generous with your money. Spending money on your loved one is a gesture of love. It will come back to you a thousand fold when you are in a healthy situation
  • I have worked with couples where it is assumed by either or both partners that the one who makes more money should have the most power. By Power, I mean.the right to decide how money is spent, or what the family values are or who is the true “authority” figure in the household.

In my view, assumptions about money that confer upon the earner of the money some extra status or a right to control anyone are just wrong.

At the very least, using money as a tactic to control another person is an unbalanced situation where one member of the couple is “less than”…has less voice, less agency, less solid “self”.

In the worst-case scenario, unbalance in relationship amounts to abuse of power.

Definitely not OK in any circumstances.

So, pay attention to money and how it operates in all your relationships.   Remember, it’s not a measure of your worth or anyone else’s.  

I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends

I think I am not alone in my enjoyment of “sit-coms” that feature small groups of people who spend time with each other on a regular basis as they celebrate life’s great moments as well as console each other in times of grief. The 90’s show “Friends” comes to mind as an example of such a show, or the 80’s show “Cheers”
“You wanna be where everyone knows your name” is the song that “Cheers” opens up with, and hearing it always makes me feel a warm glow of longing. That’s what I want. That’s what everyone wants I think, but as I grow older I realize that it’s harder and harder to come by.

What Happened To My Close Knit Group Of Friends?

As a psychotherapist I often hear from my clients that they don’t have enough friends. Many people are genuinely lonely a lot of the time. This is in spite of having a gazillion friends on Facebook…. which is obviously not the same thing.

But…here’s the thing. As you scroll through your Facebook “friends”, how many of them would be available at a moments notice for a “face to face” real time encounter with you as you spill your guts about some terrible thing that has happened. Who would you call at 2am in the morning at a time of great despair?

Thinking back on the times when I have felt close to a group of friends, it occurs to me now that I was younger, more carefree. I had fewer responsibilities…such as a full time job or family. It was ok that the friends I had also did not know exactly who they were or where they were going in life. It was ok to be “goofy” and make mistakes and change your mind about things. After all…we were all young and it was “expected”…right. It was OK to “Play” also.

Now, I feel like everything has gotten very serious, and dare I say it, “competitive” in a certain sense. Now that I’m a full-fledged, middle aged “grownup” I feel like I should have it all together somehow. If I don’t, that’s somehow a judgment on me, and I’m aware of others who do have it together. I measure myself. I come up short.
The “competition” part is actually in my own mind, more than anything else.

So, What About Facebook? Isn’t this a good way to keep up with friends?

Well,…yes and no. Facebook is a good way to find friends, and keep up with their lives, but it has a “dark” side. In some ways, I think Facebook can make us all feel even more competitive and inadequate. With some exceptions, I find that people usually put their best foot forward in Facebook. They advertise themselves with flattering “selfies” or wonderful news about the great accomplishments of family members. Sometimes it’s pretty depressing when I’m not feeling so successful myself.

What Should We Do Then To Get Back To “Close Knit” Friend Groups?

Here are some ideas:

  • Go beyond your “comfort zone” bubble and suggest short in-person get together with people you think might be interesting. Risk rejection. It may happen. Go beyond the ‘virtual” world of Facebook and invite someone to do something with you.
  • Join an interest group and begin spending time with people who share your interests. This can be anything. .from a book club to a “meet up”
  • Most importantly, I think, is to have the courage to be your most authentic and vulnerable self. This is the best recipe for lasting, sustaining friendships. It’s also the most unique offering you possess, and as long as you are also encouraging others to be authentic and vulnerable you can’t miss. Take it slow, of course, and don’t fall into the trap of immediate indiscriminate “overshare”. Find the right people for you…and don’t give up until you find them.
  • Once you get your “peeps”….never let them go. Set up regular “get togethers” at each other’s houses, or a “meeting” place you all like.
  • Most of all, don’t expect this all to happen automatically. It not like college, where you all live in the dorm, or see each other in classes. The difference is that in our increasingly busy world, I think it has to be “intentional”.

One thing I do know though, is that we all need friends. We can’t “get by” without them

Five Essential Ingredients In The Recipe For a Mature, Lasting Relationship

Fulfilling mature relationships don’t happen overnight. Most often two people come together through the magnetism of mutual attraction. This is what brings people together but its not what keeps them together

Everyday life intervenes eventually in all relationships. This is when the real work of relationship building begins. It takes patience and commitment to build a lasting relationship. It’s also helpful to keep in mind the following key ”relationship building” guidelines:

1. Get To Know The Full Relationship History Of Your Partner

More than likely you are not the first person your partner has been in relationship with. For this reason it’s important to start the dialog early on about all of the romantic relationships that have preceded you. It’s also important to begin to understand relationships in a broader context as concerns your partner. What kind of friendships and family relationships are in his/her current and past life? All of this is important data when you want to develop intimacy with another person. You need to talk about and explore strengths and vulnerabilities with each other. Are you with someone who has lasting relationships or not? Does your love interest have close family and friends? If not, why not?

2. Practice Effective Communication Immediately With A New Love Interest

As you are getting to know someone new, remember to do at least as much listening as you do talking about yourself. Slow everything down and check that you are truly understanding what it is that is being said. You can even check your understanding by asking “Did I get that right?” Or, “Is this what you’re trying to say?” Don’t assume you know things, or interrupt the flow of another’s conversation. Ask questions and be curious.

3. Build A Deep Friendship Based On Mutual Respect And Trust

Focus on what you can give to another rather than what they can give you. How can you be of service to this person in support of who they are authentically as a human being? Do for them and they will do for you. That’s how it works. The love flows naturally from this.

4. Build A “We” In Relationship That enhances Rather Than Detracts From Each “I”

By This I mean that in the best and most mature relationships, neither individual needs to force the other to sacrifice who they are as an individual. You each become who you are, and this is a source of pride and wonder for your partner, rather than a source of competition or derision. Together you become more than the sum of your parts because of the unique “blend” that you are. Individually you are each of you whole human beings and you value and support each other on your lifelong journey.

5. Find the right “balance” in your relationship… in all things.

Time together should ideally be balanced with time alone. Time with “Us” friends should be balanced with time with “Me” friends. Always find ways to have “me” time. Balance of “power” means equality in terms of making mutual decisions, and taking the needs and preferences of your partner into consideration.

These five concepts are just “starter” ideas I have come up with though my experience with watching and counseling children, individuals, couples, and families. It’s about finding and keeping relationships that are about growth and change, rather than suffocation and dominance. It’s also about valuing equally the “relationship” and the” individual”.

Is This Love For Real?


The experience of “falling In Love” is exciting and romantic. On a physical level, our bodies are infused with an intoxicating blend of “feel good” neurotransmitters that are pre-programmed for bonding and procreation. We are obsessed with our beloved. It certainly feels like love!!

Later on, the picture is not so rosy. We begin to see aspects of our partner that annoy and anger us. This is when the “honeymoon” is over and the “real work” of the relationship begins. Now we begin to have moments where we doubt our choice of partner. Our question now becomes:   “How do I know that this is “true love?” Or, “How do I know this love real and lasting?”


One way to explore this question is to ask yourself what your expectations of your partner are. Do you love him/her only when certain conditions are met…such as your partner continues to look a particular way or treat you a particular way? Does your love hinge on your partner agreeing to make “changes” that you deem to be in the best interests of creating YOUR ideal mate? Is your love possessive and controlling in some manner that demands your lover to be a certain way in order to receive love from you?

This is CONDITIONAL LOVE. It usually does not last.

There is an alternative that can last a lifetime


Authentic love is based on a fondness and admiration of the other person, which does not depend upon how they feel about you…even if you wish with all your heart that your love were reciprocated. When your love is authentic you can bravely declare it and not retreat into bitter vengeance when the one you love does not feel the same way. Authentic love exists of course in non-romantic settings as well…but is particularly sweet when Romance and Authentic love co-exist and are felt by both people in the relationship.

Now there is a love worth waiting for




Finding Love….How To Reclaim Your Hidden Self

Finding Love…. Reclaiming and Celebrating the Hidden Self



I’ve recently begun a series of blogs devoted to solving the “riddle” of “Finding Love” in our lives. First I talked about “The Importance of Feeling Seen”. Next I touched upon “Daring to be vulnerable”. Now I want to talk more specifically about the part of us that often is not seen by others…the “hidden” self that feels tender and vulnerable and remains unseen unless we allow it to emerge from the shadows of our personality. In fact, the famous psychologist Carl Jung referred to our hidden self as the “shadow”. In simple terms, your “shadow” is any part of yourself that you don’t want to be seen by others…and in fact you may not even allow yourself to see it because you have denied it for so long or buried it so deep. Examples of “shadow” parts of us might be our extreme shame, or our desperate longing to be loved…orperhaps our bitter jealousy of a sister, brother, or friend.

Virtually anything can be in our shadow if its something we don’t want to “own” or admit to. It could even be a hidden talent that we are afraid to develop lest we won’t be perfect at it. Whatever the shadow is doesn’t matter. What matters is uncovering it…first to yourself…and then to another with whom you wish to achieve authentic intimacy. Uncovering and exposing your shadow is important work on the path to wholeness and, I believe essential for finding lasting love.

How Do You Know What’s In Your Shadow?

I think most of us are pretty conscious of certain parts of ourselves that we keep hidden much of the time. Who amongst us has not been jealous or envious for example? Recently I have found that it’s quite liberating to admit to my trusted women friends that I have felt jealous of them from time to time. I was amazed when I did this. When my jealously was hidden and suppressed I found it difficult to be happy for the good fortune of my friends. When I admitted envy, I could rejoice with them. I could join with my friend and we could be happy together. My jealously came out of the shadows and became an admitted part of who I am.

Now…. Look At Your Projections and Discover The Connection Between Judgment And Projection

In order to find deeper parts of our shadow selves that we really don’t want to admit to or just can’t see, we have to notice the places where we sit in extreme judgment of other people. What happens is that when we really don’t want to admit to a trait within ourselves we react strongly to that trait in another person. This very human tendency is called “Projection” and it’s a really good way to keep our shadow selves at bay. For me, a really good example was when a good friend of mine got a new car that I’d been coveting for a while, but I could not afford right now. All of a sudden I was talking negatively to others about the extreme foolishness of her buying this car. My extreme reaction was Projection. I could not just be happy for her until I admitted my jealousy and took back the projection. My projection, in this case gave me a clue about that same old hidden part of myself called envy

Know That You Are Enough

Brene Brown is a well-known “Shame” researcher who has studied the emotion of shame extensively. One of her findings is that people who are driven by the need to be “perfect” are often keeping huge parts of themselves hidden from themselves and others. What they are keeping hidden is obviously anything that does not fit the image that they are trying to project of being “perfect”. These hidden “non perfect” aspects are part of the shadow of a perfectionist. What a burden! Perfectionism becomes a problem of course, simply because it is unobtainable. Brene Brown stresses the importance of Knowing that you are enough which means, I believe owning all of the parts of yourself…the perfect and the imperfect. In her book, Daring To Be Vulnerable Dr. Brown also talks about how often all of us avoid looking at the imperfect parts of ourselves by staying ultra busy, or numbing ourselves with the many distractions that are available in our modern world. Drugs and alcohol also serve this purpose.

So…. Celebrate All Of Who You Are

So…now that you know how to find your “hidden self”, rejoice in it, reveal it, and celebrate your well-earned place in the human race. People will find you much more approachable as you emerge from the shadows, as long as you surround yourself with a trusted cadre of like-minded folks. One of my favorite songwriters is Leonard Cohen. He has a great line in one of his songs about how true enlightenment comes when a crack appears in anything that we as humans call “perfect” This is how the line goes: “There is a crack, a crack, in everything…that’s how the light gets in. That’s how the light gets in”




“Concious Uncoupling”…..How To Say Goodbye With Ease And Grace

I am normally not a “star Gazer”, in the sense of following the personal lives of movie stars. My attention was grabbed however, by the story of how Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin ended their “10 plus “ year relationship.  This famous couple has made their breakup, which they refer to as a process of “Conscious Uncoupling”, very public. They give credit to the relationship expert, Katherine Woodward,thumbn_105562590 for guiding them through a thoughtful and heartfelt five-step process of saying goodbye to one another.  The five steps are worth checking out, I think, as they offer hope that it is possible to end a relationship with a feeling of goodwill and respect between the parties.  This benefits not only the parties themselves, but everyone else associated with the parties…such as children and other extended family and friends.

Step One…. Get A Handle On Hot Emotions

There can be no doubt that going through a breakup causes a volcano of strong emotions to erupt within the individuals involved.  All of the most basic emotions are triggered in such a situation…including grief, fear, and anger.  Added to this, there is often the shock of something that seems to come “out of left field” and turn the trajectory of life upside down.  Two pieces of advice are important here.  First one….Its important to allow oneself to feel the emotion all the way through…don’t deny or repress.  Secondly, it’s important to have a “vent buddy”.  You don’t want to “act” on emotions while in a heightened emotional state as you may do or say something that causes you more grief later on.  You do want to express the emotions, though, to a trusted friend or therapist who will hold your confidentiality.

Step Two…Don’t Wait For Time To Heal Your Broken Heart…. Be Proactive

In Conscious Uncoupling, the concept of actively and proactively grieving is stressed.  Research has shown that the brain chemistry of “loss” is exactly the same for relationship breakup as it is if you had experienced the death of a loved one.  In both cases, stress hormones bring about feelings of extreme depression and anxiety.  Really, we should get bereavement leave for separation and divorce, but the society pretty much minimizes these life events. So…how do you “actively grieve?”  In the Conscious Uncoupling” process, it is suggested that  setting a conscious intention from the very beginning to make something meaningful and even beautiful out of your personal trauma can mitigate prolonged grief.  You may not believe it in the beginning, but you can set the intention anyway.  In the mystic spiritual traditions, it is recognized that personal suffering, breaks the heart open for personal growth. Start to embrace this concept. 

Step Three…. Don’t Get Stuck In Blame And Shame

The extreme position of being a Victim of grievous wrongdoing in a “breakup” situation can feel initially righteous and justified.  It may very well be quite justified.  The problem comes with “holding on” to the victim story.  Growth is impeded at this point.  It’s equally important to let go of any shame that may be either self imposed, or imposed by the society.  Society employs the word “broken family” when separation and divorce occurs…but this is actually inaccurate when looking at things from a longer view.  In today’s world, families can be seen as “expanded” and “changed” rather than permanently “broken”. Languaging can be important.

 Steps Four and Five…Learning Communication Techniques and aligning your community. It’s Important in cases where children are involved

How to proceed with steps four and five, depends on how well the parties in the relationship are able to communicate, and how necessary ongoing communication is.   Admittedly, many relationships break up in ways which involve extreme forms of betrayal (affairs) and/or domestic violence.  In such cases, it may be that true communication can’t happen without a third party to mediate. According to “conscious uncoupling” paradigm, though, even if you can’t communicate directly with your “ex”, you can find ways to ask for what you want clearly and “non violently”.  You can do this especially well if you have moved beyond blame and shame.  Classes and/or coaching in “non violent” communication can be very helpful. Mutually agreeable solutions can be reached.

“Aligning” your community refers to the importance of talking to family and friends about your decision to refrain from engaging in negative language and blame regarding your “ex” and his/her present partner (if there is one) This may be the hardest thing of all to do, and may not reflect your true feelings.  In such cases, you may still need your “vent buddy”, but publicly, you are making it smoother for your children and all of your friends…past and present… if you can adopt the “no blame” stance.

So there you have the five steps of the “conscious Uncoupling” process.  It feels like an ideal to me…a work in progress that is way easier said than done.
Let me know what you think

By Leslie Kays MFT