Everviolet Chats: Kelsey Crowe, Empathy Expert

In celebration of Women’s Month, we’re excited to announce our new Journal series, Everviolet Chats, where we will be profiling leading ladies in the wellness world – particularly those impacting the breast cancer field in novel and beneficial ways.

For our very first chat, we had the honor of sitting down with Kelsey Crowe, empathy expert, founder of Help Each Other Out and co-author of "There Is No Good Card For This: What to Say and Do When Life is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to the People You Love." She's also a two-time breast cancer survivor, has her PhD in Social Welfare and yes, is a total badass.

Kelsey Crowe

We all know how hard it is to comfort someone who is suffering in a way that feels genuinely helpful and meaningful – whether due to illness, a breakup, coming out, unemployment, death or whatever it may be. But with Kelsey Crowe and illustrator genius, Emily McDowell's empathy cards, as well as Kelsey's Empathy Bootcamps, we can learn that it doesn’t have to be that way. Kelsey does a great job in reminding us that we're all human, and through social science, storytelling and artwork, we can make the world a more compassionate and understanding place. To learn more about Kelsey's viewpoints on empathy, some of her awkward encounters during breast cancer treatment, as well as new projects she has up her sleeve, read our interview below.

How did you and Emily McDowell first meet, and come up with the idea to write, “There is No Good Card For This?"

Well, we were really quite lucky! I started the book before we met – while I was doing empathy workshops – so, people knew I was working on it and that I always wanted it illustrated. A friend of mine who works for a stationary company introduced me to Emily, and the rest is history. It ended up being a great fit because we have a similar sensibility and goals. We both wanted something research-based, thoughtful, easy to read and funny. It was a perfect match, really.

Why do you think we, as humans, have such a hard time with empathy?

You know, it’s tricky. We (or well, most of us) are actually hardwired for empathy – even infants can show signs of it, same with animals! But what happens is that we starting having our empathy moderated by things in our life, like stress or social norms, which can override our natural empathic responses. For example, as we get older, even when we feel like expressing empathy, we may lack the confidence to do anything about it. We erroneously believe that as adults, we’re supposed to be able to fix everything, including problems, and therefore, if we can’t come up with a solution, we may think that it’s not worth putting in the effort to connect at all. We may even rationalize this avoidance into believing that if someone wants us to connect, they will reach out to us! But the truth is, when anyone is experiencing even a modicum of suffering, that is the time when they’re at their lowest and the least likely to ask for help – mostly due to avoiding any sort of vulnerability or shame. So, that’s the conundrum our book tackles: how to help people reach out when they care but are unsure of what to do.

When it comes to helping someone who is hurting, you mention it’s important to trust in ourselves first. Can you expand on this approach?

It’s very common to feel as though we could put our foot in our mouths when we’re trying to comfort someone. Self-consciousness happens when someone else is suffering. We want to be helpful, but feel helpless. It’s a natural state of mind. Look at trust – we have to trust in ourselves in order to understand that there's no way to fix it. Trust that we’re not expected to heal anyone’s situation, nor do they want us to. One of the best ways to help someone who is hurting is to offer your authentic self. If you enjoy crafting, creating playlists, cooking meals, watching TV, offering gifts – do what feels natural and what you like to do. You showing how you care will be appreciated most.

We read that you survived breast cancer (twice!). What were some of the best and most awkward things people said to you when they found out you were ill?

People would ask me questions that implied some sort of advice. They would say, “Have you thought about a macrobiotic diet?” when they weren’t macrobiotic themselves. Two people even asked what kind of religion I practiced? If I meditated? Basically, questions that implied my cancer diagnosis was the result of some gap in my diet, spiritual life or mental health. There were also comments that people would blurt out because my situation brought up other horrible situations for that person, often with them recounting someone they knew who died of breast cancer. What’s funny is, as a pessimist myself, I completely understood having that kind of response; and can easily, with no short amount of embarrassment, recall instances when I responded like that to someone else’s hardship! I guess I thought I was keeping it real; relating to how scary this kind of thing is. But what I learned from my research for the book, and what was also validated by my personal experience, is that even pessimists don’t appreciate doomsday outlooks on their condition. In our book, I describe six non-listening styles, and one is the Doomsayer, who reacts with fear to alarming situations. Other non-listening styles, which we all have in one form or another, are being The Sage who offers unwanted advice or the Eternal Optimist who always finds the silver lining and is a fan of saying something like, “At least…” as in “it’s not ____ cancer.”

Being aware of our particular non-listening impulse when confronted with difficult news helps us manage our normal response by basically zipping it and doing something else instead. All we need to do is simply ask how the person is feeling during their difficult time, and take their cue on how to respond whether it’s with gratitude when they are feeling hopeful, or saying something as simple as, ”I’m sorry” or “That sucks,” when they are feeling sad. Honestly, in many situations, the more we can practice withholding our own opinions and reactions when confronted with someone’s trial, and alternately tune into how someone else is feeling, the better.

How did your personal experience with cancer influence your relationship with empathy?

It gave me a lot more understanding of people’s varying energy levels. I’ve always been a high-energy person and never understood fatigue – thought it was the same as being sleepy. But with illness, it’s not the same kind of sleepy that an afternoon nap or a good night sleep can fix. It’s more of an identity shift, where your mind and body are moving slowly, as if you’re wading through molasses, and you don’t know when you’ll feel back to your old self again or if you’ve just hit a new “normal.” Of course, everyone’s idea on energy is different, but through my experiences, I finally began to understand what it meant to have no energy at all, and I was able to get less frustrated by it. Once I was diagnosed with cancer, I was for the first time able to accept myself and others for who they are in the present moment, which has definitely been a life-long journey.

Your book has a very real, honest tone to it, and it breaks down empathy in a familiar way. However, do you ever receive feedback from readers who can’t relate or understand its message? Please explain.

No, never. No one has ever said that they can’t relate to or understand the message we’re conveying, which I have to admit was a fear of mine, given that our book covers a huge swath of difficult times. Through lots of research, as well as experiencing many of the difficult times described in the book myself, I was relieved to discover that our readers understand its comprehensive nature. Book Riot provided my favorite pithy synopsis to date – “A required starter pack for any human that plans to interact with another human being”  – and that’s exactly what we wanted! A few reviews said that the tone and advice seemed juvenile, and the overviews were too simplistic, but that’s exactly what we wanted the book to be! Simple, with actionable recommendations that get people out of analysis paralysis and into doing something without total fear of what could go wrong. So, we didn’t take that feedback negatively. Overall, the amount of positive feedback has really been a surprise – even in the academic and medical fields!

If we could all learn to be the best versions of ourselves, what do you think the world would look like today?

It would be great if we could learn to live with less insecurity and reactivity, and more curiosity and responsiveness. That’s what I’m working on anyway…

Do you have any exciting, upcoming projects that you could share with us?

Sure! I’m in the midst of expanding my empathy repertoire. I’m writing a new book on political empathy – particularly helping families who have members that voted differently and speaking to each other about their differences without forsaking their relationships – even enhancing them in this conversation. On our book tour, I was often asked by the press and audiences to touch on politics and realized there was a hunger for this. Thanks to the Germanacos Foundation, I’ve been able to assemble a great research team at the UC Berkley Center on Civility and Democratic Engagement, and I'm hoping to have it ready by June. We shall see!

To attend any of Kelsey’s Three-Hour Empathy Bootcamps in San Francisco or Los Angles that help you authentically connect with others, and receive help without feeling like a burden, you can visit her site or email her directly at kelsey@helpeachotherout.com. To stay up-to-date with Kelsey’s upcoming projects, sign up for her newsletter here.