Lessons in Empathy

Jul 1, 2021 | BARKS from the Guild, Consulting, Personal Development

By Kathy Wolff

Kathy Wolff

“The most important skill we need to teach our dogs isn’t found in ‘obedience’ rhetoric, but rather in finding peace in the day-to-day living of life” – Kathy Wolff, with Cree © Kathy Wolff

According to Wikipedia (2021), empathy is the “capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. Definitions of empathy encompass a broad range of emotional states.”

“Hi, my name is Kathy, and I’m a Nervous Nellie.” At least, that’s the cutsie polite little name we used to call it when I was younger. I was someone who always saw the glass half empty, worried about what was going to happen next; took the “what if’s” and blew them so far out of proportion that the situation prompting the response was so distorted from reality it was mindboggling. I believe the clinical term for this is “catastrophizing.”

But whatever term I use to try to tie it up in a neat bow, it is life-altering and deeply troubling.

Now that the first anniversary of the COVID-birthed new world has been and gone, I feel compelled to share my own thoughts and experiences over the last year or so with the world. I submit to you, then, the Nervous Nellie perspective.

For frame of reference, I have worked in the medical profession full time, not as a clinician but as support staff, for 32 years. Dog training is my part-time gig. As support staff, you are the front line of contact for many: coworkers, patients, family of…. You are the pipeline for all the information that everyone needs to know and you’re relied on to move everyone in the right direction at any given moment.

To say there is a lot of pressure on that pipeline is an understatement, but when COVID hit, the pipes burst.

The COVID Effect

Fear and anxiety were at the kind of high that was physically palpable. You could see it in faces; you could feel it in the air. Dare I say, in our primal ancestral way, we could even smell it. Every time the phone rang, or my colleagues or patients came to me seeking information and direction, their desperate energy hit me full on, over and over. My “gift” as an empath was not helping me here either. The openness of access to their visceral responses drove hard, directly to my soul, biting deep.

Often, I could not sit still, I just had to keep moving. Sitting still made me feel like I was going to explode. At times, it was hard to breathe or to think. I felt as if I had no train of thought. There was no way to cohesively put thoughts together in a sequential state to try to find some solid ground in all the chaos. I could not make decisions because I could not reason. If asked to do a simple task, it was monumentally challenging to make any type of critical thinking process happen. In an ironic twist of cruel comedy, I could envision myself in one of those spinning sequences that you see on TV; the one where the director is trying to convey confusion and disorientation (funny but not funny).

My own fears about how COVID would affect me and my family complicated matters to the point that I was properly paralyzed by my amygdala-ly dominated nervous system. My digestive tract ramped up to warp speed. Without going into unpleasant descriptives, let’s just say there was a lot more coming out than was going in. The strain of it all caused me to lose my voice – both physically and emotionally. And, speaking of emotions…wow! Talk about wearing them on your sleeve. I am naturally more of an emotional person than I would like to admit, but now I was always on the verge of tears, ready to run away screaming.

Many of my clinical colleagues, who of course had much more of a practical learning skill set than I did in situations like this, tried to quell my panic and lack of response. But, even then, I knew at least some of them could never really understand what I was going through. That knowledge was embarrassing and created a new self-loathing as I chastised myself for not being able to just get it together! “What the hell is wrong with me?” I would constantly ask myself. The initial physical and emotional manifestation of COVID was truly devastating on so many levels.

Everlasting Impact

Since my department’s day-to-day activities reduced dramatically during the first weeks after our new world disorder, some of us were able to have time off to regroup. For me, that regroup meant, breathe. Just breathe, every day. Get up after a really bad night of some sort of pseudo sleep, and breathe. That’s it. If I got through the day without going crazy and disappearing down a jagged chasm of panic, I called that a win. If I could make myself something to eat, take minimal care of my dogs, and keep my home from falling into complete disarray, I had a good day. Don’t ask me for anything past that. My long-lost agoraphobia came to visit, so going out at all took herculean fortitude. But that was okay with me: stay where I know I can be safe, and maybe, just maybe I’ll be okay.

I hope I didn’t make you feel uncomfortable while you read this. But I do hope that what I was describing sounded familiar to you. It did to me. You see, as I sat in my house day after day, just breathing and trying to hold myself together, a very poignant epiphany came to me. This deep unrest and loss of life control that I felt must be the same thing that many dogs who have had traumatic experiences are feeling. My experiences navigating my emotional journey with COVID took me deeper into the empathy for these fragile souls, forever changing how I look at dog training and guidance at both ends of the leash.

To dogs who have lived through abuse, neglect, who were born into a frantic world from a mother who herself was traumatized, who are on the receiving end of a bad spin of the genetic wheel, or who for whatever reason cannot process the nuances of living, normal everyday stimuli and stressors can be too much to even consider. When living life becomes a constant internal battle to just breathe, their daily life (as they perceive it, not us) is a traumatic event.

My sincere intention in putting pen to paper is to give voice to the somatic confusion, helplessness, and desperation that can be felt when we, be it human or canid, face life when presented in ways that we just don’t have the skill sets to handle. Dogs have the same complex emotional and physical responses as we do and as such, their pain is as real as ours. We have to recognize this and take steps to ensure their safety, their peace of mind, and empathetically guide them gently towards the best life they can live. This goes beyond sit, down, and stay. This is empathy, security, peace.

Happy Anniversary

At the one-year anniversary of the COVID-birthed new world, I found myself feeling more centered, at peace, and more equipped to face life. Sincere thanks to my children, my spouse, and the many friends and family who understood my needs. They gave me empathy, safety and supported the skill sets I needed to develop to be able to navigate. I will be eternally grateful. Does this salutation mean I’m “cured”? Nope, not even close. I’m a very short trip from Calm to Calamity, but now I am also well versed in how to take the trip in reverse.

Taking the time to empathetically guide our emotional dogs with gentle methods while we support their needs can help them unwind their mind and calm their soul. Realize that the most important skill we need to teach our dogs isn’t found in “obedience” rhetoric, but rather in finding peace in the day-to-day living of life. Be prepared for those trips to Calamity. They will come, it’s part of who we/they are. And when they do, please remind us/them how to find the way home.

Reference
Empathy [Def]. (2021). Wikipedia

This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, July 2021, pp.62-63. Read the full article Lessons in Empathy.

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About the Author
Kathy Wolff CCDT CCUI is the owner of Mosaic Dog Training in southeast Wisconsin. She is a graduate of CATCH Canine Trainers Academy, a licensed dog bite prevention educator thru Doggone Safe, and a registered handler for Alliance of Therapy Dogs, for whom, in the past, she spent five years visiting hospital patients with her retired therapy dog, Thunder. She is also a certified Control Unleashed instructor. Her goal is to help dogs and their companion humans create lifelong bonds based on mutual respect and understanding, taking into account both their emotional and training needs.