We’re talking about the hot-cold empathy gap.
When I met my client (in my book, Shut Up and Sit: Finding Silence and All the Life-Changing Magic that Comes with It, I call him Bruce), he was the CMO of a Fortune 100 company and in the middle of a significant life crisis. He believed that he stood to lose everything that mattered to him, and his anger was all-consuming.
“The Hulk,” as Bruce described his shadow side, was running his life. He didn’t even know how to exist in a world where he didn’t call the shots and lead with anger. Bruce wasn’t ready to admit that his life had become untenable, and he definitely didn’t want to ask for help. Needless to say, he wasn’t entirely sold on the concept of mindfulness, either.
So much so, in fact, that our first session together was full of profanity. (Lucky for Bruce, I’m fine with cussing.)
The work to sit with and contain his anger to dig into what was underneath it changed Bruce profoundly. It turned out “The Hulk” was simply a shield—there to protect a wound that was so old and so deep, Bruce had wholly lost sight of who he really was. Underneath his anger was the pain of a desperate young boy who wanted, more than anything, to just be loved. For years, Bruce had been repressing decades-old trauma, leading to not just anger but anxiety, stress, and negativity that were impacting his life at work and at home. Something had to shift.
Bruce was trapped in what the personal development industry calls the “hot-cold empathy gap.” Think of it like this: Have you ever observed (or been, yourself) a parent trying to calm a toddler in the throes of a temper tantrum? It’s impossible. No matter how gently you ask them to calm down or how many deep breaths you take, hoping they will mirror you, very often, that tantrum just has to run its course. Once a toddler enters that full-blown-fit stage, they’re deep into a neurobiological process that has to take its time returning to a state of calm.
That tantrum, and its subsequent resolution, is the hot-cold empathy gap in action. Once the brain enters a stress response and neurological patterning begins to run its loop, you’re in it. At that point, it’s almost impossible to sit in silence and will yourself out of that loop. Once those neurons are firing, you have to ultimately devolve and deconstruct before you can return to a state of calm and review what happened—and try again.
Once on the “cold” side of the hot-cold empathy gap, you can take an objective look at your triggers and reactions, choosing to be aware of your surroundings, your cues, your triggers, and your responses the next time a similar situation arises. By fostering that awareness, you can even start to consciously create a life in which you surround yourself as much as possible with people, places, and things that support new, healthier behaviors.
In the case of Bruce, one of the first things he and I worked on was the importance of a morning routine. Before he committed to a mindfulness practice, he dreaded going to work. Looking at his phone immediately after he woke up meant he’d often start his day with stressors from work, dwelling on them as he got out of bed and prepared for his day. It set him up for stress before his day even started.
His new morning routine allowed for an earlier wakeup to create time for mindfulness, meditation, journaling, exercise, and sitting in silence. Once his morning routine became a habit, he incorporated a similar nighttime routine, focusing on gratitude journaling his thoughts on the day.
By starting with those two shifts, Bruce found himself pausing in triggering situations rather than reacting, responding in empathetic and engaging ways rather than with immediate anger. He’s become calmer and less agitated, enjoying better outcomes in every area of his life.
That traumatized young boy, desperate for love, eventually transformed into a grown man who found that love within himself.
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