How To Use Empathy For Healing: Q&A With Dr. Alauna
Dr. Alauna is a psychiatrist who specializes in trauma. Her work centers on how we can better use and understand empathy beyond the typical trope of "walk a mile in someone else's shoes." She blends science and brain systems that process emotion with tangible actions and steps people can take to heal themselves and their relationships with others.
In Dr. Alauna's view, the more we get familiar with how our brains process traumatic events and create myths that become our reality, the better we're able to respond to triggers when they arise. We spoke to Dr. Alauna at length about her practice and got some wisdom from her on having empathy for others and empathy for ourselves.
Anser: How did you get into the field of trauma?
Dr. Alauna: I'm actually the only trauma psychiatrist in America. I started at the VA, and we were always short staffed. So I was learning some of what the psychologists did, some of what the social workers did, and some of what the nurses did. And just being in that unique position, I started to realize, even as a psychiatrist, I still hadn't been taught how my emotions were affecting the way that I thought. I had not had a full awareness of my own personal psychological traumas, and how they had impacted the choices that I've made in life.
I ran smack dab into a wall of health problems, relationship problems, work problems — everything just kind of seemed to hit a wall at the same time. It really forced me to sit down and reflect on whether or not the way that we were administering care for trauma was effective. I found it to be lacking because we focus too much on pills. So I said, we need cognitive skills, we need to understand how the brain processes information. Then, we need a strategic program for activating the most evolved part of our brain, the part of our brain that is best at making short and long term decisions.
Anser: it seems like you're really taking the scientific part of psychiatry and how the synapses in the brain are reacting to different chemicals and different stressors, and really coming up with a more holistic response to that.
Dr. Alauna: The goal is to empower people to recognize a lot of the emotional myths that we have because we really haven't truly explored emotions and what they mean and how they affect us. Our brains interpret information. It goes into our brain and our brain kicks out a calculation or judgment about what we interpret is happening. And that's what creates the emotional response inside of you. So what you're thinking about the other person doing, is what's causing you to experience the sensation of anger or what creates the happiness or the jealousy that's transmitted into your body. We treat our version of reality as if it's the reality. And then we go about our life disregarding the experiences of other people and treating our version as if it's the only one.
"We treat our version of reality as if it's the reality. And then we go about our life disregarding the experiences of other people and treating our version as if it's the only one."
We have to actually be willing to slow down and acknowledge our emotions, and validate that trauma is happening, has happened, and probably will continue to happen. But we can improve our experience of each other if we actually learn to connect to someone's experience outside of ourselves and treat it as just as valid as our own experience.
Anser: What is empathy? How is it a useful tool for people?
Dr. Alauna: Empathy is an intentional choice of treating the other person's experience as equal to your experience and being connected psychologically to their experience. Most of us have a superficial understanding or definition of empathy. It was taught more as being emotionally connected to the other person, who they are, and how they’re feeling. Really, empathy is deeper than that.
Empathy is being willing to step outside your own bubble of what you know, or what you think you know. It’s not just putting yourself in the other person's shoes, because that might cause you to think that your solutions will work for their problems. A lot of times our natural knee jerk way of doing things is to tell people what we think they should do without really getting deep into who they are.
"A lot of times our natural knee jerk way of doing things is to tell people what we think they should do without really getting deep into who they are."
Who are you? What experiences have you been through in life, that cause you to look at a thing the way that you do, and to experience it, so that you're drawing the conclusions that you stand here before me with?
Empathy is really about getting into that person's life in their experience, and being willing to go, “I can understand why you thought of it that way. I can validate that your version of reality is very real to you.” And then we can start building a bridge from where you are to some of the things I think you may not know, or may be missing, that can help you recognize why what you're doing, or how you're doing it, is shaping how you're reacting to this.
Anser: So when it's put into practice, what does it look like? What does it look like for empathy to become involved in that process of healing?
Dr. Alauna: I use the acronym L O V E, to help people remember how to put empathy into action.
L is listen and look with suspended judgment.
Our brain naturally calculates information and kicks out snap micro judgments. And we're taught to go with it. Because we've really never been taught a deeper understanding about how our brain calculates information, and that most of the time, we're missing information, we just roll with it. So the first thing you have to do is just take your little bubble of perception, put it to the side and get more information from the other person. We need to do more listening.
O is observing the emotions in yourself and the other person.
We have a very difficult time, even as adults, at putting words to how we're feeling on the inside. That's when it's important to recognize something like anger is an umbrella emotion. If you're feeling angry — which also includes irritable, sarcastic, snappy, depressed, frustrated — that's coming from fear, sadness, embarrassment, disgust, jealousy. There's all these other emotions that are running underneath these channels. And if you don't put words on them, they literally can be driving your decision making and causing you to react. Also that other person sitting across from you has a brain that's in the exact same situation.
V is validate the differing perspectives.
You have to validate that the other person's perspective to them is just as real as yours. We're all built the same. A lot of times people go “Well, I don't agree with that other person.” You don't have to agree with them to be able to hear them out. When you validate someone else's perspective, it calms them down and makes them feel heard.
The E is express yourself effectively, creator.
We don't really pay attention to how powerful our words are. They have to make it from your brain, out of your mouth, across space into the other person's brain. And then they have to be interpreted through that creator sitting across from you. So conversation and communication is a two way thing or three way or however many people are engaged. We have to recognize that if you're not careful, you're creating all kinds of things that cause exactly what you don't want to play out, whether that's relationships, or whether that's at your job, because of your words, and what you say and how you talk. It's important for all of us to become more aware of how powerful each one of us are, to create things in other people that we can't see.
Anser: Trauma can be so intersectional -- it’s interpersonal or familial, but also gendered, racial, sometimes carried subconsciously through genetics as some studies are showing now. How do you differentiate and explore different kinds of traumas?
Dr. Alauna: All of us have experienced trauma, will experience trauma, and are experiencing trauma. So why have such a stigma about something that everyone goes through at some point in life? Trauma is really about how it programs six parts of your brain to perceive information to try to protect you.
"All of us have experienced trauma, will experience trauma, and are experiencing trauma. So why have such a stigma about something that everyone goes through at some point in life?"
Those six primitive brain systems have a huge amount of impact on the way that you go forward interpreting the world no matter what the trauma was. So whether it was someone assaulting your body or someone calling a name, those same six brain systems cause you to filter the world through a lens that's looking to protect you from having that negative painful experience.
The problem with not knowing that that's what your brain is doing is that you'll treat that filter as if it is reality. You interpret things differently, and often misinterpret things and create realities for yourself that are sometimes a total opposite from what you want, because you are empowering the fear so much.
It’s not the Trauma Olympics, is what I tell people. Your pain hurt and their pain hurt. Just because it comes from a different place doesn't mean that it’s not psychologically traumatic, and causing you to interpret in a new way that causes you depression, anxiety, pain or whatever comes out of that.
All humans operate in a state of fixed false belief, because we treat our feelings as if they're fact. We can't differentiate between what the outside is causing versus recognizing that the way that your mind is interpreting this scenario is what's driving you to have this experience. You have to know how your mind and body processes that trauma, and then go from that negative traumatized perception to a healthier, evolved, more balanced and objective way of thinking about something.
Anser: How do you start to recognize that that trauma might be existing on a cellular level inside of you, and then start to retrain your brain to see the world in a different, more compassionate way?
Dr. Alauna: The “recognizing” is just accepting, because everyone, and every community that you can identify has trauma. We don't teach people how their mind can be susceptible to fear-based things and how the brain interprets information. It really boils down to having the awareness that trauma is not something that anyone can avoid. What you tell yourself about the traumatic experiences will have power in the rest of your life.
Part of our problem is that we want to hurry up and rush on past those painful thoughts and emotions and we don't want to revisit them. Well, you can't heal anything that you won't talk about. You can't fix problems that you won't even call the problem.
"Lack of empathy is an emotional, spiritual and psychological blindness."
Lack of empathy is an emotional, spiritual and psychological blindness. I've created a program called Empathy Skills Practice for Traumatized Humans. If all of us practice empathy skills regularly, it would improve all of our experience of traumatizing other people. The majority of pain that's being created these days is coming from the way that we talk, think, and the way that we as a society communicate with other people. We so easily dehumanize others, and so easily tend to ignore the invisible impact of our words and our behaviors on each other.
Be willing to acknowledge that the work comes from you, not the other person. You are the only person you have control over. You have to be willing to do the work to gentle your mind, because all of us are getting a very aggressive diet of violent interpretations, judgmental statements, and comments. And those come out in the way that we then turn around and communicate with each other.
Anser: I assume the practice of empathy looks different for someone who experienced a family trauma like a sudden death of a parent versus somebody experiencing sexual violence. When there are power dynamics at play, how can you use empathy to heal your own wounds while still holding power accountable?
Dr. Alauna: Focus on self empathy. People have told themselves: “Because I'm in this situation, that means I'm damaged or I'll never be able to recover from what I'm facing.” That has very real consequences in the way that you treat yourself, the decisions that you make, or the way you allow other people to treat you.
Having empathy with the other person can truly be healing and transformative, but you have to start with having empathy for yourself. This means not donkey kicking yourself like “Why am I sad? I shouldn't be feeling like this. I should be able to be strong and ignore these painful feelings.”
Well, those painful feelings are programmed in your biology. Emotions are the language of the soul. That means that they're not to be ignored. They're to be listened to, processed, embraced, and explored.
We think that crying is what makes you weak, whereas crying is actually knowing when you need to give yourself that release; giving yourself an opportunity to feel your feelings and move past them. You can pick yourself back up and you can say: That bothered me. I've processed it. And I recognize some of it is maybe how I think about myself, but some of it is that I'm allowing you to do or say things that are harmful to me. Unless we can change this dynamic, maybe we don't need to have this relationship anymore. Maybe there's something going on that I need to look at versus just saying to myself, “I'm depressed and my life sucks.”
It boils down to doing your own work. You will not always get validation, an apology, recognition, or closure from other people. But sometimes what you tell yourself about that is what does the most damage. You can't fix that other person, but you can tell yourself, “I'm going to be healed whether or not that other person recognizes what they've done was damaging to me.”
Anser: In today’s media climate because of Instagram and social media and the news cycle, when an event happens that involves something like police brutality it’s really common for people to feel retraumatized and triggered by all of the images and vitriol that they see. How do you recommend people stay grounded and healthy during times of massive public upset?
Dr. Alauna: News channels are designed to keep you hooked and engaged, so they use more and more inflammatory or sensationalized language, to give you that internal rollercoaster of dopamine. Well, unfortunately, when you stay so connected to all of the things that are happening in the world, and you have news channels and media outlets that focus on the more negative and sensationalized things, that means you have a constant diet and intake of these negative, painful things. And then of course, some things hit more personally than others.
So I tell people don't watch that stuff. If you don't want to, you don't have to watch someone die or get hurt. There's nothing wrong with stepping back from social media and news. It’s important for all of us to acknowledge that no one can protect your mind but you. You can turn off notifications or take an app off your phone, and you can choose not to focus so much on these negative things because that will program your mind to think and be more afraid and more negative.
I call it trauma drama: looking for those things that prove that the world is how we conceive it to be. But that also means we continue to create a world that we're not enjoying.
Anser: You hold a lot of space for a lot of people it seems like and you're thinking about things on so many levels: personal level, scientific level, societal levels. What are your go-to forms of self care? How do you take care of you? And how can others take care of themselves?
Dr. Alauna: Boundaries! I understand that the only person that 'm fully responsible for is me. When I'm talking to someone, I do my best to be present, educational and helpful in skill building. Then I bless your decision making even if I don't agree with it, and that keeps me from having unhealthy expectations of other people or myself, because I recognize that I'm just one person. I can do a lot for other people but I can't sacrifice myself and my responsibility. The best thing that I can do is be a good educator, be a good supporter, but set boundaries so that I have the energy to walk this through all the way to wherever it's going to go.
"I take the time to hear positive things to reset every day, to connect with my breath. To remind myself, yes, I am a spiritual being having a human experience, and all of us are spiritual beings, having a human experience with powerful biology that moves us and shakes us."
And meditation is a huge part of my self care. I take the time to hear positive things to reset every day, to connect with my breath. To remind myself, yes, I am a spiritual being having a human experience, and all of us are spiritual beings, having a human experience with powerful biology that moves us and shakes us. I meditate on how I use mindfulness skills and I practice my own empathy skills. Every day I talk myself through my own skills so that the best that I can get out of me comes out of me when I need it. And then I empower other people to do the same.
Anser: Where can people find your courses?
Dr. Alauna: People can find my courses on dralauna.com. Click the trauma recovery Institute on the homepage, and it will take you to my online internet based educational Academy. So the Dr. Alauna Trauma Recovery Institute is a nonprofit organization geared towards a membership based platform where you get to learn from me and hear my best shot at explaining to you your brain body behavior, and what you can do about trauma. It starts at $33 a month. I tried to make it really affordable for anybody. We have a monthly skills group where they can practice those skills and we can talk about real life scenarios and how to use them.