A very personal example: How we interpret an experience

Today’s post is a pretty personal one. It’s about something that just happened in our family, and still feels incredibly raw. I want to tie it into our series on Spiritual Intelligence (SQ) with empathy and comapassion, and our miniseries that covers how we interpret an experience by revisiting this difficult moment from the perspectives of empathy and compassion (SQ) and generalization (interpretation of experience).

So here it goes. Last week my mom went to discuss a bronchoscopy biopsy to determine if she has lung cancer. We spent ages in the appointment room with the oncologist going over the results and discussing options. When we came out of that room, all my mother really wanted was a cigarette to smoke, and she was asking to be wheeled outside and for the cigarettes – the cigarettes I was carrying for her in my purse.

I froze.

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What does it mean to generalize from the perspective of interpreting experiences?

To Generalize: The process of learning and drawing conclusions so that information can be applied for the achievement of any task, requires generalising. For example, a toddler who learns how to open a door for the first time, quickly generalises their new ability so that all types of doors can be opened from then on. Similarly, a negative experience may generalise through a persons life and result in issues later on, i.e. being bitten once by a dog can result in a phobia of dogs.

And what is it to feel empathy vs. compassion?

Empathy: involves being able to articulate your awareness of another’s perspective and behaving in a way to align with other’s feelings. It means understanding what others are feeling because you have experienced it yourself in the past or you have an innate ability to put yourself in their shoes. Being “in sympathy” acknowledges another person’s emotional hardships and providing comfort and assurance.

Compassion: moves us forward by liberating us out of our thinking and feeling that sometimes glues us to the unresolved issues deep inside us. Compassion is the action we take to demonstrate our empathy.

I have a strong generalization when it comes to cigarettes. I simply see them as harmful, they don’t align with my values around health. But what do you do when someone you loves doesn’t share your value?

When my mother asked for her cigarettes right after that difficult appointment, in my head I could understand – she wanted to regain her power, she needed that moment for relief. And yet, the cigarettes are clearly damaging her. The cancer is there in her lungs. This is BIG stuff. Smoking is off the table if you want to treat lung cancer and remove tumours.

Would it have been compassionate of me to wheel her out of the hospital and help her have her smoke? For every puff, I could image her tumour getting bigger. I love my mom, and I could understand why she wanted that relief – but I love my mom. I know how cigarettes hurt.

As I said, I simply froze. I froze and could not transition that empathy into action. My generalization was screaming out me: Smoking is dangerous! And yet my mother was waiting to be helped.

Who knows what the right thing was to do, but I found myself unable to move. I became the fly on the wall as my sister took over and wheeled mom out for her smoke – I felt out of my body in the third position watching as the action unfolded around me. What was going on? I asked myself. Is this the most loving thing you can do for your mother in this moment?

I look back now at that almost out of body experience. As I share this story it still confuses me, but I can realize now that to be truly empathetic is to leave judgement aside. It is hard, but I can see that my generalizations around smoking led me to a judgement that stopped empathy from becoming compassion.

In yesterday’s moment of confliction, pretending I could go back in time, would I do anything differently?

Yes. I would feel torn, and it would be hard. But the truly compassionate response would have been to do what mom wanted. As I look down upon that now, I feel more open – in that moment, after the oncologist broke the news about cancer – to helping my mother have her cigarette.

Whew. There’s a lot in this post – but looking through that new lens has helped with a moment that shocked me. And I think it will help me going forward, too.

Have you ever had a moment that challenged your generalizations? And what do you do in situations where a loved one’s values don’t match your own? Please share your insights and stories in the comments below.

Till next week,


Camille Boivin is founder of Sister Leadership, certified in EQi 2.0 and EQ360, a master practitioner of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), has been coaching high-level women and men for over six years, and is now opening her expertise to those emerging in business. Camille pulls her blog topics from her unique coaching approach that combines her training as a EQi 2.0 and EQ360 certified facilitator with the dig-deeper tools of NLP.

Get in touch here if you’d like to talk with Cam about group or one-on-one coaching, and EQ assessments. With the miracle of Skype and telephones – distance is no issue!

1 Comment
  1. MC Lessard 6 years ago

    I’m so sorry to hear about your Mom Cam. I can’t say I know how you feel but I can certainly appreciate the intensity of the conflicting emotions… As a friend, I’d like to offer another perspective that may help shift some of those emotions: I don’t believe that your Mom does not NOT share your value of health. I think her life’s emotional pain is just greater than any image of health she can put together in her mind’s eye. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always live by my values either. Even if I do value health, spirituality, generosity, respect, etc, sometimes fear, or its other insiduous derivatives, hijack my ability to act in alignment with them. Someone looking at me could justifiably say that I don’t value this or that but they’d be wrong. In those moments, the antidotes are, as you say, empathy and compassion – from friends, family, and even strangers. Much love to you and your family…xo

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