By: Renda Garner
Growing up in America in a middle-class white household I always felt safe. I was so naïve and truly didn’t understand there were others that didn’t experience the same things I did daily: go to school and get educated; come home to a decent sized home where both of my parents were waiting; get help with my homework; eat dinner; go to sleep in my warm and clean bed—repeat the next day. Although my parents taught us about responsibility, hard-work, and respecting others, I was never truly put in a situation where I felt unsafe or needed to be brave.
Because of my sheltered upbringing, I always assumed safety was a natural human right. As I got older and realized this truly was not the reality for most, I felt a sense of guilt. Why did I deserve this picture perfect upbringing? Why are there others that don’t get the same thing? What can I do about this?
With great power comes great responsibility, right? Now that I had this realization, I felt a calling to do something with it. Remember, what looks like brave and safe space will not be the same for everyone. For myself, safety had always been my world, so my shift to brave space simply started with an awareness that there are others that were not as fortunate as myself. How could this be? Why is that fair? Again, what can I do about this? The empath in me then felt a responsibility, truly an obligation, to take care of and fight for those that could not.
My career choices then started to reflect my new brave space beliefs: counseling disabled students; the choice to always work in community colleges versus universities; directing a federally funded grant program that provided assistance to first-generation and low income students; universal course design—accessibility for all students in online courses; serving as a school board trustee in a low-socio economic school district; and now working for a faith-based non-profit that believes in building community amongst all people regardless of their beliefs, status, color, gender, or nationality.
“MEPATHY” AND SAFETY AND BRAVERY
It is likely that most that are reading this truly know and understand that this work can be very rewarding but more times than not, truly exhausting. I would imagine that like myself, many who do this work are highly empathetic people who want to take care of others and make a difference. Personally, the question I have to constantly ask myself is: How can I continue to be a true empath yet also take care of me? Where is that fine line between safe and unsafe?
In my work as a Missional Wisdom Foundation Launch & Lead leader, instructor, and coach I see so many wonderful people lose their focus and get burned out quickly. More times than not this is because they sacrifice their self-care in order to care for others. I too am so guilty of this; so guilty that I made up a word to remind myself that empathy is a two-way street. That when I’m giving empathy to others (putting the empathy out) that I need to make sure I am giving empathy to myself (bringing the empathy in)…in other words, “Mepathy”.
As we continue in this work, there will likely be times that we need to ask ourselves: “if we’re not taking care of ourselves and providing ourselves a safe space, how can we possibly assist with providing that safe space for others?” We’ve all heard it, “If the plane is going down, make sure you give yourself the oxygen mask first before providing assistance to another person.” You must give yourself life before giving it to others. For me, this is where my brave and safe spaces come together.
SAFETY AND BRAVERY FOR THE EMPATHIC SOUL
Taking care of myself is my safe space…sometimes getting to that space means I need to be brave enough to know when I need to say, “no.”
Throughout my life I was known as the empathetic, soft-hearted, people-pleasing peacemaker. Some might argue this naturally happened as a result of my middle-child birth order, or, perhaps, it was early life situations that naturally encouraged and supported this label. Regardless of the reasons, a label is exactly what it became.
Carrying this burdensome label early on sometimes kept me from taking chances or standing up for myself. As I grew, matured, and became more aware, I began to stand up for myself. The response that I received from others caused me much guilt (because this was not the behavior they expected from me) and frustration (because my inner people-pleaser was at odds with my need to stand up for myself). This change in my reaction was often not easily accepted by others; because of what they had grown to expect from me. Anything except empathy came across as argumentative, emotional, or erratic.
I could easily spend an exorbitant amount of time discussing how unfair this label is (because others get to speak up and fight and no one blinks an eye), but recently I have concluded that this is not a place where I want to exert my time and/or energy. The truth be told, I love this label…this is who I am and who I want to continue to be. So, I care for myself so that I can continue to bravely care for others.