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How Are You, Really?

The Super Power Of One Simple Question.

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**This article is a chapter of a book I contributed to called “Crazy Amazing During Difficult Times,” filled with advice from thought leaders and everyday people who want to make the world a better place. 

How Are You, Really?

Someone I once dated called me recently, and my heart skipped a beat. In my Ex’s voice mail message, the Ex said he had a question and decided to call instead of text (hmmm). My neurotic mind started to race! Why did my heart skip a beat? What did my reaction mean? Did I still have feelings for him? Did he have feelings for me? Or was I having an unpredictable response because I’m not sure what happened to us in the first place? Was there ever really an “us?” Was I crazy? Am I crazy?

Lucky for you, I will save my unresolved love-life issues for another book!

In the meantime, I called him back and left a VM. The past couple of months had felt like we were living an episode of the Twilight Zone (it’s April 24, 2020, and the world is in the middle of a global pandemic, should anyone be reading this in 2055). I told him it was great to hear his voice, and I came clean about my heart skipping a beat. I mean, why not? We may all die anyway. 

The Ex and I finally connected the next day (which felt like two years). As we got caught up, chit-chatting about our families — he paused — then asked how I was doing. I had an unexpected reaction. I started to cry. It was a bit embarrassing, but then again, screw it. I am working on being more vulnerable in my love life anyway! 

In addition to the global health crisis, I had serious stuff going on. Aside from the loss of income from Covid19 related restrictions, a girl I’ve sponsored for 11 years in Cambodia ran away from home (now possibly homeless and alone). My dad had just been released from the hospital with some random life-threatening disease. All the stress and worry caused my autoimmune disorder, scleroderma, to kick in, which left me covered in non-human like hives and my confidence at an all-time low.

You may ask: who cares about an ex-boyfriend calling out of the blue and asking how I was doing? 

And I would agree, but an important detail to add to the equation is what he said precisely, “I WAS THINKING ABOUT YOU and everything you have going on, and wanted to know how you are doing?”  

It seems like a simple story, and quite frankly (besides my unresolved issues with the man), it is! And, that is the point.

If you think about it, asking someone how they’re REALLY doing can change one’s whole perspective – be it that day, that week, or the rest of their life. That is how great an impact EMPATHY has on us; empathy is everyone’s non-judgemental best friend, favorite blanket, and best companion.  

When I was asked to contribute to this book, I thought: What am I doing for the world that is so special? Probably nothing too earth-shattering. Except, I care too about how other people are feeling – really! I coach business leaders and executives on the importance of being empathetic, but I also practice empathy every day. For me, it comes naturally. I show up, and it may not be perfect, I may flounder, however, you can count on me to be there.

Empathy is not exclusive to our personal lives; it belongs in business too. We spend 90k hours of our life at work, a 10:1 ratio of who we spend time with otherwise. We need to feel empathy toward our peers. You can’t go wrong if you lead with your heart.

Harvard Business Review recently published an article by Karyn Twaronite aptly titled, “The Surprising Power of Simply Asking Coworkers How They’re Doing.” In it, she says:

“As humans, we have an innate need to belong – to one another, our friends, families, culture, and country. The same is true when we’re at work. When people feel like they belong at work, they are more productive, motivated, and engaged, and 3.5 times more likely to contribute to their fullest potential according to our research at the Center for Talent Innovation.” 

At some point, we are all going to experience the death of a loved one, a break-up, a job loss, discrimination, a health crisis, a natural disaster, or even a global pandemic (who would have thought?). No matter the circumstance, these things are tough, scary, and lonely. However, once we are present with our empathy and take down our walls, we can indeed be there for one another. Essentially, there will be no mistakes in what we say or how we say it as long as we show up with our whole heart.

Here are five empathy tips for building your empathy skills (just in case)!

1. Saying something.  We have all witnessed, if not experienced, firsthand when a hard topic can be avoided because people are afraid of saying the wrong thing. Something is better than nothing, but remember to connect to the feeling underpinning the issue.

It can be as simple as:

  • “How are you doing, really?”
  • “I don’t know what to say, but know that I love you (We don’t need to know what to say).
  • “If and when you want to talk, I am here for you!”

2. Listen with an open heart.  Just as important as not being silent, is the ability to listen to others. We don’t need to have all the answers, even if we have experienced a similar loss. You must become the listener, not the knower. We don’t all process feelings the same way. For example, if you’ve already lost your father and a friend loses theirs, the loss is not parallel. (Maybe yours was a loving father, and your friend had an absent father). Most of the time, the point is that sad or stressed people aren’t looking for an answer; they want to be heard and given the opportunity to vent.

You can:

  •  Be the shoulder they can lean on;
  •  Be 100% present;
  •  Try your best not to interrupt, or project your history onto them; 
  •  And, remember these are their feelings, not yours.

3. Be intentionally helpful.  Some people don’t necessarily know how to respond when offered help directly. Have you ever noticed when you ask someone who seems to be in trouble if they need anything, they say no? It’s most likely because they don’t want to trouble you. 

To combat this:

  • It’s as easy as checking in on your friend, even a simple text;
  • Cook for them or bring them groceries (Often, when we are sad or in crisis, it’s crazy how paralyzed we feel);
  • And, it never hurts to bring over a bottle of wine, be present, and listen (It’s more fun too).

4. Be consistent and reliable. When people are struggling, we tend to send flowers or gifts, and yes, flowers will cheer anyone up. But we need to be mindful and continue to reach out after something happens, once the flower deliveries and phone calls stop. Support and the continued connection is crucial to help maintain one’s resilience.

Some ideas are:

  • Consider sending a card in the weeks that follow, as a reminder you’re there;
  • Send them photos of fond memories;
  • And, invite a struggling friend for dinner or a video date. Even just the invitation reminds someone they are loved.

5. Heal with laughter.  The ability to laugh is the key to sanity and survival. The great Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl attest to as much in his psychological memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning. And author Madeleine L’Engle said, “A good laugh heals a lot of hurts.” There is always humor in the dark, and often, there is healing in laughter. Why do you think it is so cathartic to tell funny stories about the deceased at their funeral?

Try:

  • Telling a joke, when the time is right, and it will be;
  • Laughing at yourself by sharing an embarrassing story that happened to you;
  • Or watch a comedy show or a funny movie.

Speaking of movies, Sex and the City is a good reminder of how important it is to be present for someone when they are suffering, and although you may be in a dark time now, you will laugh again. Remember when Carrie was left at the altar by Big? She was humiliated and heartbroken. Kicking and screaming, she ended up going on her honeymoon in Mexico with her best friends but didn’t get out of bed for days. When she finally did get out of bed, she asked her friends if she was ever going to laugh again. Samantha said, of course, she would, when something is really, really funny. 

Meanwhile, Charlotte was too scared to eat the food in Mexico, for fear of getting Montezuma’s revenge. She brought cases of pudding and stayed away from the delicious five-star spread at the hotel. Once Charlotte got comfortable, she began to let her guard down and accidentally drank some water during a shower as it streamed down her face. Moments later, her stomach started to grumble, and she raced back to the room, trying not to poop her pants. En route, Charlotte ran into the girls having drinks. “Sweetie, what’s wrong?” they asked. With sweat and humiliation all over her face, she pooped her pants. They all laughed so hard they peed their pants!

Besides Sex and the City being a funny, emotional, and feel-good movie, the film shows that no matter what pain we suffer, we will have better times ahead. 

I leave you with this quote:  

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

-Maya Angelou

xo, 

Tami Holzman

PS. Since writing this chapter during Covid-19, social activist, and iconic fashion designer Kenneth Cole announced the launch of the “How Are You, Really?” Challenge with The Mental Health Coalition (MHC), the first collaborative effort at a scale which convenes and unites the leading US mental health organizations, creative and media platforms, passionate advocates, politicians, thought leaders, athletes, and celebrities working collectively to de-stigmatize mental health conditions and address the pervasive public health crisis. The Coalition launched with an online platform, a digital resource guide, www.thementalhealthcoalition.org, and an interactive storytelling platform www.howareyoureally.org. The challenge has prompted participation from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Whoopi Goldberg, Deepak Chopra, Kesha, Kendall Jenner, Justin and Hailey Bieber, and more.

I can add psychic powers to the list of my superpowers! ☺ 

LCSW Therapist (and friend) Carol Gelbard, laughing with Author, Tami Holzman

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