We currently live in a world that begs us to pick a side. It is polarizing and even more stressful than many of us think about because it puts this unwanted pressure on us. But why do we have to choose when we can learn to sit in the space between and keep our hearts open? Jason Wrobel and Whitney Lauritsen are joined by Nōn Wels, the podcast host of You, Me, Empathy. In this episode, they talk about dismantling the system of this versus that, changing one heart at a time. They discuss how we can live in the messiness, the spaces of gray that are part of the human experience, and how we can keep our hearts open instead of being crushed by the weight of it all. Just imagine the many things we’re missing out on by trying to fit into a singular side or point of view. Join Jason, Whitney, and Nōn as they show you a whole different way of perceiving the world, helping us think about our identity, unconscious biases, intention, mental health, family, and more.
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How To Keep Your Heart Open Instead Of Being Crushed By The Weight Of It All With Nōn Wels
In the short but hopefully illustrious history of This Might Get Uncomfortable, this is the first guest that we have ever had that I feel like I’m getting into a little bit of fanboy territory from listening to his podcast. Beyond the fanboydom, it’s a human being whose creativity in how he created his podcast, his artwork, his whole presentation was one of the podcasts that served as a foundational source of inspiration when Whitney and I were conceptualizing This Might Get Uncomfortable. Feelings and emotions are going to be one of the bedrocks of this episode with our guest, Nōn Wels. As Whitney and I were looking around for the feel, his podcast, You, Me, Empathy, was one of the podcasts that we plucked out from the giant podcast universe and said, “We love the feel of this.” I remember the first thing Whitney and I said, “We love how this feels.”
Nōn, it’s great to have you here to dig a little bit deeper into so many subjects around mental health and emotional wellness and all kinds of branches and streams that we don’t even know where we are going to go yet. You were at the beginning of our journey and you didn’t even know it. I’m fanboying and giving you some love. Thank you for creating this beautiful podcast. Thank you for creating The Feely Human Collective.Creating safe spaces is crucial. Click To Tweet
This is our first time connecting. One of the reasons that we felt moved by your artwork and your podcast feels like you. When I started listening to your podcast and feeling your emotion and your heart, I said, “Everything that he’s constructed, from the logo, the copy, the website, it feels like you.” I feel like that’s a rare thing. I’m curious. As we kick this off with you, Nōn, was that your frame of mind when you were creating The Feely Human Collective and the beautiful branding and the artwork for the podcast? Was that an intention where you are like, “I want this to feel like me,” or did it just happen that way?
First of all, thank you so much, Jason, for all that flattery. I love the fact that you saw my logo and thought, “This feels right.” It certainly felt right to me when I was conceiving of it. In terms of the show, its conceit and why I created it, I never came into the picture. The intention was to create a space of safety, feeling, empathy and vulnerability that I did not have growing up and to give that to others. In the mental health journey leading up until that point, there were a lot of discerning, curiosity, journeying and wayfinding.
That got me to a point where I figured out that empathy, vulnerability and creating safe spaces to show up in the world and to meet people where they are, are crucial for human growth. I love that you said it feels like me because I can reflect on that now in doing You, Me, Empathy. It is very much me. I put my heart and soul into it. I don’t want to show up in the world, not like me. I want to show up as I am and to be met as I am. That’s the place I am. It feels good to hear from you, Jason, that it does feel that it’s coming from my heart because it certainly does.
This reminds me of something that I have been reflecting on to this point of it does feel good when others perceive us and give us feedback. It’s affirming us that what we are intending to do is being received. Sometimes I wonder, does it matter, though, if people see us the way that we are intending? On some level, almost like a surface level, of course, it matters how people perceive us. On a deeper level, it doesn’t matter because we don’t have control over it.
Do we get caught up in this cycle of wanting people to affirm us? This is something that I have been reflecting so much on myself and it feels a bit confusing. As humans, we thrive in a community. We need community. We crave community. There are so many psychological elements of that. Much of our society is based on how other people react to us and what other people think of us. That’s where I get in this muddled thought process. I’m simultaneously being told to be myself and it doesn’t matter what other people think. Also, being told that you need to do things that matter to others. You can’t be selfish. You need to align. It’s important for people to perceive you a certain way.
I’m curious about your thoughts on that too, both of you. Does that confuse you as much as it confuses me? Does it feel clear? If you step away and ask yourself, “In this context, is it important that Jason sees what you were intending for him to see?” Going back to his question, were you trying to get people to see you for who you are? Were you being who you were without caring if they saw who you are at the core?
It’s a bit of both and that’s probably why this is such a human experience to feel confused by it because it is messy. It also speaks to the fact that we can hold multiple truths. As humans, we can hold the truth of the universality of human need, which is to be seen and heard. That is foundational to growth. At the same time, there are certain human needs for achievement, independence, setting out into the world and creating our own space and our things. The challenge is in how we manage those things. We can’t forget about others. No matter what choices we make, we always have an impact on others.
To think of Jason and his reaction to the You, Me, Empathy logo or to what I’m doing, if it’s a positive impact and that inspires him to maybe create his podcast or think about his feelings or empathy differently, that was certainly my intention from the start. If there are other attributes or other things he has taken away from that experience, that initial reaction to my podcast or my presence, wonderful. That’s the nuance of what it means to be human. We contain so much and we can receive so much from others. I always say it on my podcast. We are mirrors for each other even if we are not even aware of it. We can show up as mirrors intentionally but we also mirror unintentionally.
I feel like it is an ongoing process of knowing what drives me and also the intent behind why I do what I do. It is complicated. As an example, I was speaking to my therapist, Gary, during our session and I was relaying to him that I’m having a challenge with a new thing that I’m doing that we will probably talk more about on the show. I found myself through Whitney’s encouragement and the encouragement of a couple of other friends of ours to start being a jingle writer and being a songwriter for hire and writing songs for other people. It has been beautiful and fun engaging all of these different attributes as a musician and a writer. It’s a gift of the pandemic. I didn’t expect I would be doing this and yet here I am.
One of the aspects that are related to this is there’s a part of me as I’m writing these songs for other people. They are not for me. They are subject matter and topics that other people have contacted me to write about. On the one hand, there’s a part of me as a human being and an artist that I know that I feel the freest when I create without an expectation of how other people are going to receive it. I’m trying to keep the channel, the floodgates, the portal or whatever you want to describe it open so the melody, the chord progression or the lyrics can come through. I try not to pinch that off in the beginning.
I was relaying to my therapist that the point that I think about and that I start contracting is when I think about releasing the songs and the videos that I have been contracted to do for these songs and that potentially thousands and millions of people are going to see this for the brand that I’m doing it for. I then start to go, “People on social media are going to have opinions, aren’t they?” That’s what we do. We have opinions as humans. I know that when I release this, there are going to be people that like it, that is indifferent to it and hate it. The people that hate it will probably be the most vocal about it. Social media seems to be the place where people want to pour their anger, fear and negativity into.
What I’m saying is I try to operate from a place of, “I don’t care what people think.” If I’m honest about it, it’s an emotional defense mechanism, “I don’t care what anyone thinks.” There’s a part of me that would genuinely like to be there but I find that when I’m in that stance, it’s like, “You can’t hurt me.” Deep down, I dread releasing these new songs because I know there will be people that will be like, “This is shit.” The reality is I can’t allow that to prevent me as an artist from releasing what is in my heart to release in the world because it’s inevitable that some people will love it, be indifferent and drop some negative comments. It’s something I struggle with, especially as an artist making my work public in the world.
We all struggle with it. Thanks for sharing that. It’s tough. What you said is spot on. The aim is being detached or unattached from outcomes. Call it enlightenment or whatever you want. The aim is in being present with the creation of your thing or whatever you are doing. You are picking up on that, Jason. It’s probably a bit of denial of self, saying that, “I can be completely removed from the influence of feedback or what people think.” That’s probably not a realistic space to be, necessarily.
How can we reasonably and realistically get to space mentally and emotionally where we can allow things to be what they are? Allow the fact that we can’t please everyone. We are not codependents. We can create and be joyful in our thing. Feedback is great, too. When I get feedback on the podcast, for example, I’m like, “Yes.” Even in our deepest passionate projects, we can feel overwhelmed, burnout, stress, anxiety, depression and all these things. It does help to get feedback that’s championing the thing, excited about the thing that you create. All this important work is messy.
It is a fine line. It seems to me that in our society and because of the access we have to each other through technology, we can become overly concerned with what other people think of us. That can be helpful at times when we get feedback. I’m curious, how do you feel when you get positive feedback versus when you get perceived negative critical feedback? How does that impact you with your work? How do you respond to it emotionally? How do you respond to it, if at all, in your actions?
It’s changed over time. The space of mental health, which I am in as a podcaster, is fraught with lots of deeply personal experience and trauma. These things bring up a lot of passion, high highs and low lows. I have had experiences with folks who have attacked me for whatever reason and say not nice things. This is the space I’m in. On the one hand, as a sensitive feely boy, I feel hurt. I’m like, “Why can’t I please everyone? I want to please everyone.” I then have to take a step back and remember, “Nōn, that’s not a reality. That’s a thing that doesn’t exist.”I want to show up just as I am and be met as I am. Click To Tweet
For me, it’s about allowing things to be what they are. Also, when I get those negative comments, I try to apply empathy. Even if I can’t know for sure what this person is going through, I try to contextualize it in a place of like, “Maybe they are having a shitty day. Maybe they are struggling. Maybe this did trigger them in a way that I didn’t intend. I feel bad about that.” Having all of those opportunities for reflection and contextualizing it compassionately does help, too.
I love that, especially for me as a self-proclaimed recovering people pleaser. That’s a topic of an interview I’m going to be doing. I have been thinking a lot about how I can become a people pleaser? How am I recovering from it? How is it still impacting me? How is it no longer impacting me? A common theme that Jason and I have found in our work is people-pleasing. I’m fascinated by it. That’s why it feels messy. I love that word. I don’t know if you ever get to a point or even want to get to a point where you don’t care about what people think.
I was watching an episode of this new show called Generation Hustle on HBO, which we did a dedicated episode on. This is one of the best that I watched. It was about a scam artist who came across as if he did not care how he was impacting people and what they thought of him. He didn’t even care what the government thought about him. I was fascinated and horrified at the same time because part of me felt envious of his ability to not care and to go forward and do whatever he wanted because it made sense to him and it worked for his life. None of what he was doing felt directly harmful.
Although, they did have another person in the episode who talks about how sometimes we don’t even see the effects of our actions on others. It can cause us to believe that we are not harming others but that doesn’t mean that we are not. I thought that was an important part. His whole attitude felt authentic. I already encouraged Jason to watch this episode. Nōn, if you are interested to watch it, it’s a fascinating series from a psychology standpoint and human behavior. For the readers, too, in this particular episode, this man didn’t come across as a sociopath. He came across as truly confident and calm. This is who he was. He was owning it. He didn’t care what other people thought of him.
Generally, people think of him as something positive. He’s grown this huge following. He has been successful. He’s incredibly intelligent. If you step back and dissect his behavior, people could say, ethically, “It doesn’t make any sense.” I have been sitting with that since I watched that episode and reflecting on it. How do we determine when something is good or bad, right or wrong when there are so many gray areas and messiness in all of this?
It sounds fascinating. I will certainly check it out. I don’t think there is a good or bad or right or wrong, truly. It’s like healing and like “the work,” it’s nonlinear, messy, gray and nuanced. It does take a lot of sitting, feeling, being curious, asking questions, shedding, unlearning, learning, relearning and checking in on our unconscious biases, conscious biases. All of it. That’s actively and daily. That allows us to be in those spaces of gray. If we are fighting them, we are ending up in often narrow frames of thinking that often bypass parts of the experience of being human that lead to enlightenment, growth, perspective, change and all the stuff that we need. There are so many things that could lead to bypassing, whether it’s spiritual bypassing, moral bypassing or whatever it may be, there are a lot of it that exists. I am on the side of, if there is a side at all, allowing for things to be what they are, all of it and sitting with that reality, it’s scary and uncomfortable but that’s at least the aim that I am going toward.
I’m glad you spoke to that because it reminds me of something I have been increasingly experiencing. Our friend, Jeff Krasno, who was a previous guest and who runs this great website called Commune, posted something about the most dangerous position you can take is being in the center. He had a wonderful post explaining his viewpoint, whether that’s being in the gray or in the center, of how the polarity is so strong politically, socioeconomically, in terms of the vaccine conversation. There are a lot of topics that are deeply emotionally charged for a lot of people. I find myself regularly being contacted or being invited to have a conversation with people who have picked side. They are firmly entrenched in their viewpoint, their belief, what is right and wrong.
I have had to start enacting boundaries with people in my life by saying, “I appreciate you wanting to invite me to have this conversation with you. I feel how passionate you are about it.” I’m in a place with my mental health where I’m not prepared to have that conversation. I’m doing my best to get clear about how I feel about the said topic. It’s more challenging for me to get clear if I’m receiving feedback from people with all these viewpoints. In different ways, I have had to paraphrase that communication and send it to people. It’s not only the volume of people who want to have a conversation about politics, socioeconomics, vaccines, etc. The feeling I’m getting is that people want me to agree with them. I don’t need to agree and I don’t feel like I want to pick a side so to speak.
Some people have remarked, “You need to be on the “right” side of history. You need to be aligned with the righteous people and fight against evil.” This is all an acquiesce amorphous thing because there are a lot of people who feel like they are on the right side of history and doing God’s work, the good work or fighting against the evil ones. It’s such a nuanced perspective because that comes down to individual perception. The idea of good and evil, right and wrong, we are the good guys and you are the bad guys. What I’m trying to say is I’m finding that it’s radically uncomfortable to be in this center or live in the gray when a lot of people want you to pick a side and be with them.
I’m curious what Jeff meant with his post. Was he saying that you “shouldn’t be in the center” when he said it’s dangerous to be in the center? Is he saying that it’s dangerous but that’s not a bad thing?
The second. To live in a place where you are not putting your proverbial stake in the ground of, “I’m with this political party,” or this particular affiliation, I’m pro-vax or anti-vax. He was saying to not pick a side is the most controversial and dangerous thing one could do right now because it makes people radically uncomfortable. I have had people respond to me like, “What do you mean you don’t know how you feel?” I said, “I don’t know how I feel about it.” “What do you mean you don’t know?” I said, “I don’t know how I feel.” “What are you going to do about it?” “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” I found that the phrase, “Genuinely, I’m feeling into it or I don’t know,” certain people are radically uncomfortable receiving that authentic perspective.
I hear what you are saying. I’m following along. We humans need to say, “I don’t know,” as often as we can but then, what? What is our next action to learn to maybe enlighten ourselves or to educate ourselves? What that makes me think of is, “I agree that it is no right or wrong or bad or good. I do think that there are certain things that I do want to take a stand on. I do want to not agree to disagree.” That is a recipe for disaster. Passionate and active work is important. At the same time, what you are speaking to with the people showing up with their armor, ammunition, is because they are buying into the binary framework of this versus that. We need to dismantle that whole system of this versus that. That’s hard. That takes individual work.
Maybe it’s more comfortable, easier or feels safer to pick a side, know what that means, have the few bits of information I need and that’s my identity. That’s my place. I feel like I don’t want to diminish that. I feel like it’s important to feel community. It’s important to have a sense of identity and a sense of purpose. At the same time, it’s important to challenge it every day. There are not a lot of introspective challenging of our perspectives that’s happening. That’s why we get into these places of this versus that. It’s why Trump was elected, for goodness sake.
One of the biggest opportunities is when we are confronted with someone who is either vehemently trying to defend their viewpoint or perhaps even getting into a mode of spewing vitriol or attacking us. I’m curious on that subject, Nōn, what the difference is in your cosmology between empathy and compassion. I feel like those two words are often used interchangeably. I’m curious what the difference is for you between empathy and compassion and how we employ those in our human relations.
I think of this often. To me, compassion is important. It feels more passive. Empathy is more active. To me, empathy is an active daily practice. We often think of empathy as putting ourselves in the shoes of another and it’s very much that and it’s also so much more. You, Jason, you could have an experience, for instance, that was maybe traumatizing. I, as Nōn, may not have had that same experience. I could still show up with empathy because I am a human who’s experienced trauma, suffering in some way. I can go there but it takes practice, active listening, being present. It takes a lot of the work of communicating, listening, looking and learning. That’s how I would distinguish the two as passive versus active action.I don't think there is good or bad, right or wrong. It's gray. It's messy. Click To Tweet
One of the things that I have seen an increasing amount of in terms of workshops, books and things that people post is how to navigate the world as an empathic being. People are talking about the dangers, I suppose, when you feel too much. It’s interesting because I didn’t even have a framework or language for being an empath most of my life. If I reflect going into my childhood as a young boy, my mother had to ban me from going to the pet store. I would go to the pet store with my mom and I would cry because I wanted to rescue every single cat, dog, bird, turtle, gerbil.
As a 4-year-old or 5-year-old, I didn’t understand why we couldn’t. I’m like, “Our house is big. We’ve got this great house. We have this backyard. We will put them in the backyard.” I had all of these solutions. God bless my mom. I love my mom. She was like, “We can’t do this.” I didn’t understand. Similarly, when we would go to Downtown Detroit and I would see homeless people, I would be like, “Can we take them home for dinner? We need to feed them. We need to do these things.”
I have always been driven at the core of my being to acknowledge and see maybe what I perceive as suffering, limitation or a way that I could help. I also acknowledge that there are some days where I over-consume news and I feel emotionally weighed down by the enormity of human suffering. This is a long way to get to a question. I could look at the Buddhist approach pedantically. One of the foundations of our existence is suffering. We can’t escape it. To me, it’s not necessarily about my empathy or how I implement that into action and wanting to remove the suffering of the entire sentient beings on the planet. That’s not possible.
My whole thing is I’m still learning how to keep my heart open and how to still keep feeling, help and be action-oriented, as you are saying but realizing that some days I feel fucking overwhelmed by the enormity of it. My question is, Nōn, as a fellow sensitive human with this beautiful heart and this deep capacity to relate and support, how do you navigate this as an empathic being, as a deeply feeling human and not feel crushed under the weight of it all?
It’s tough. I love the image of little Jason at the pet store wanting to take all the animals home. I relate to that. I love that. It’s hard. I learned the hard way. Whitney had mentioned being a recovering people pleaser. I feel like I’m very much the same way. I’m that way because there were a lot of that in my household growing up. I felt like I did have to be the mediator, the quiet observer, to not rock the boat too much. A lot of that framework, especially for sensitive children, lends to a lot of building up of armor because it does feel too overwhelming. It does feel scary.
We come into the world with that huge, beautiful capacity for empathy that you are talking about. It’s then maybe beaten out of us. Through our familial systems, it is perverted or it is damaged. We have to do a lot of struggle and pain to eventually get to a point where, for me, I built up all this armor, which helped me survive. I honor that. It also nearly killed me. It damaged me greatly. I have had to shed that armor since. That whole shedding process was and has been painful. I’m at a place now where I can put on new armor, armor that serves me and fits, for goodness sake.
When I hear you say, “I want to help. I have that capacity, that drive. At the same time, I feel overwhelmed by the weight of the world,” I feel all of that. It comes down to day-to-day decisions, for me at least, in regards to what can I do? How can I show up? How can I show up for myself first? How can I still honor my boundaries, energy, time and space? As with anything, like love, empathy, we have to do it first inward. We have to do it for ourselves first to properly and authentically do it for others. The same thing applies here. We have to figure out who we are in the world. We have to figure out what fills our hearts and what serves us.
I always say we change one heart at a time. We are not going to do it in big swathes of people necessarily, we want to. That’s maybe what we should strive toward. Baby steps are important too. It’s a balance, a flow and finding what serves you day-to-day and making sure to rest along the way. I feel you. It is exhausting when you feel the weight of the world on your shoulders. They are total strangers. You are like, “How can I help? How can I do this?” It gets overwhelming. We don’t want to get to a place where we are arrested with that overwhelm. We still want to take action. We want to make an impact. How do we not be arrested by it and shut down? How do we navigate that?
One of the coping mechanisms for all of this is becoming numb. We go in this direction of either pretending or believing that we don’t care. That ties back into when Jason was saying, “I don’t know.” It’s also like that phrase, “I don’t care.” It’s fascinating to notice when I say that and when others say it, especially in kids. I have started to become passionate about children, not being a mom but I have many friends that have young kids. Our interest in mental health, I’m sure you have seen the same thing, Nōn. You read these reports about how bad mental health is for teenagers and even younger. It’s heartbreaking.
The more I research it and study it. I see how at such a young age, kids will numb themselves to protect themselves because they are overwhelmed, confused, trying to survive and get by. They are people pleasers, perhaps. We adapt all of these behaviors to get by as children. If we are not aware, that carries on with us in adulthood and maybe throughout our entire lives. That’s one of our biggest inspirations for the show. The terminology This Might Get Uncomfortable is encouraging people to get uncomfortable because so many of us numb ourselves so much that we never want to get uncomfortable. We don’t think that we are ever uncomfortable because we keep saying, “I don’t care. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.”
We say yes to things we don’t want to. We don’t know how to set boundaries. These are all such common themes. We avoid people. I’m reflecting often on these beliefs that we have around extraversion and introversion and looking at myself like, “Am I introverted? Is that a coping mechanism? Am I uncomfortable in social situations?” Jason has talked about how his extraversion might be the root of him feeling like he needs to be the loudest voice in the room or he needs to have the attention or he needs to perform for people. That’s part of his coping mechanism and his learned behavior.
Another thing that you touched upon that I thought was an important point is in society and the mainstream, we get so much messaging around changing and getting better. Also, simultaneously, it’s shameful to change as a basic human-like who you are. For example, a topic we touch upon often on the show is it’s shameful to gain weight. It’s like, “How dare your body change? How dare you get older and show signs of age? You’ve got to dye your hair. You have to prevent wrinkles. You need to get Botox.” All of these things that we do to try to hide the fact that we are changing.
Also, simultaneously, we are encouraged to change, adapt and personal development. You’ve got to go after more and more as if there’s a place of satisfaction that we are going to get to. It’s this weird mentality that conflicts with each other. It’s like, “Keep changing so you can get to a point where you no longer have to change.” If you don’t change, that’s not good. If you do change, that’s not good. No wonder people are confused. We have so much resistance to being human. Being human is your body changing constantly. We have so much shame around our bodies, which breaks my heart.
Of course, you are going to want to go numb. Of course, you might start to isolate or tell people you don’t care. It’s this overwhelm that we experience from all this mixed messaging. No wonder people are constantly unsatisfied. They are confused about what satisfaction even means and who they are supposed to be in this world. I don’t have any of the answers but it’s something I reflect on daily and I imagine you do, too.
I think about it. Those are wonderful thoughts. What it makes me think about are the identities we hold on to. It’s important to change. Change is inevitable in growth. To go back to what Jason said about paraphrasing the Buddha. There was also some nuance to that quote. “Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.” The suffering comes in when we are not looking, being curious and present. The pain is going to happen and that’s the uncomfortable spaces that you are talking about. We hold on to our identities, “I am a writer. I am an empath. I am a silly person. I am a runner.” These are things that bring us value. We tell them to ourselves. We tell them to others. They are part of our identity and they change over time.
When people see you changing, it’s hard because change is hard for people. When you are dealing with maybe familial relationships or partnerships where one or both partners are maybe narcissistic leaning, that’s an attack on them and they put up their defenses. The identity piece is hard because it does bring us value. At the same time, we do have to recognize that we have to constantly change. It’s a good thing to change but it’s scary. I have always been a writer. What does that mean if I’m not? That’s a scary place to be.
It’s not only that it’s important to change. To your point, when you said change is inevitable, we don’t have control over change but we resist it so much. It’s like, “I don’t want to change. I don’t want my weight to change. I don’t want to gain weight. I don’t want to lose weight. I don’t want my appearance to change.” There’s only so much prevention we can do. As a society, we are obsessed with preventing change.
That’s because of all the external forces. It’s because we are too obsessed with what we talked about at the beginning, which is, what are we receiving externally? What is the superficial feedback we are receiving through media, capitalism, all of it? We are not asking ourselves, “Is this true?” We should be asking ourselves that every day, “Is this true?” Most of the time, it’s not. That is a skill in and of itself to get to a place where we can be curious about a thing, look at it honestly and ask, “Is this true?”
This leads me to the fact that I have been meditating on death a lot. It’s not necessarily in a morose or morbid way. We are talking about change. On one level, we know that our bodies will cease to be. I would like to be buried in one of those cool pods that they have now and turned into a tree. Those are rad. In my will, I want to say, “Jason requests to become a tree. Please place his remains in this pod and bury him.” I know that’s inevitable. We are walking around in this human experience and it may not be conscious. It has been front of mind for me but we know that our bodies, depending on one’s belief systems, will cease to be. The experience of Jason, Whitney, and Nōn will end on this physical plane.
We are walking around having this experience of navigating our lives but how often do we think about death? Not in a sense of like, “The clock is ticking. You better hustle and make your dreams come true.” I don’t mean that aggressively, “YOLO. The clock is running out. Do what you need to do.” I find that stress-inducing and anxiety-producing. When I’m thinking about change and death, it’s more like gray hair and the hairline is receding. ￼My mom’s getting older. I’m starting to consider how I want to be there for her as she ages. I’m starting to notice that certain injuries are taking longer to recover. It’s a meditation on mortality.
From what we are discussing, there are so much in our capitalist system that is resisting the inevitability of death. Look as youthful for as long as possible and get rid of those wrinkles and gray hairs. Make sure you have six-pack abs and make sure you are sexually desirable and hitting the metrics of value in society as long as possible. This is how you will be valued by society, look this way, have this certain weight. It’s almost as if entire industries would collapse overnight if humanity will be able to snap their fingers and go, “I love and approve of myself exactly the way I am. I accept my mortality. I accept the fact that this whole vessel is going to change and all that external accouterments, fuck all that.”
All of this is to say the losses that we have been experiencing collectively, not just from COVID but certainly in other ways, losses of income, career, identity, these titles we make, there are a lot of shedding and a lot of literal death and figurative identity death taking place now. I’m curious for both of you what your feelings are on your mortality if you both have been meditating on this subject at all. What thoughts and feelings those engender because it has been present for me?We need to dismantle the system of this versus that. Click To Tweet
I don’t often think about death per se. Jason, when I hear you say that, when we have these systems that want us to be a certain way to achieve whatever, that’s all denial of self. That’s all denying what we are as humans, which is we get old, we get gray hair, we age. What makes it beautiful is that it ends, and because it ends, that’s what gives it meaning. Holding on to the meaning is being present for me. When I think about death, which is not often, I think about that. The fact that I die is what gives it meaning. I’m going to stay here and be present at the moment also, YOLO and crush some Monster Energy Drink on my face and go for it. I’m kidding about that last part.
That was good. I thought you were serious. No judgment but that’s pretty amazing that he can occupy both spaces at once.
We contain multitudes.
I asked you before recording if there was any subject matter you didn’t want to discuss. Thank you for communicating that you were open to anything. One of the things that moved me was the way that you responded to people’s comments and feedback when you lost your dog. For me, at least, when I have lost companions, one of the most vulnerable and open spaces I can even imagine in my entire life is raw and cracked open. It’s such a space like nothing else. I was looking at some of your social posts and watching how you were responding with such grace, sweetness and sensitivity.
Even one where it might have been like a bot or someone who wasn’t paying attention to the context of your post said, “Click on this link to go get our newest dog treats.” I had this moment of feeling so much empathy for you in your loss and thinking, “I don’t know how I would not be able to respond with anger and vitriol.” Your response was kind and neutral. You said something like, “Is this what you want to post now?” That hit me in a way. You are in this raw space of mourning and yet you had the presence and the kindness to not lash out at this person. For me, I wanted to acknowledge that in you because it moved me in a profound way.
Thank you, Jason. I appreciate that. That comment was shocking. It goes back to what I was talking about before, which is, “What context am I missing?” This could be a bot for all I know. Why should I ruminate on it for as long as I need to write a question back? I wanted to share about losing Scooby, who was truly my best friend in the world because I know that people have gone through it themselves. Years ago, I could not have done that.
The reason for that is I have done a tremendous amount of work. I can hold the fact that this loss sucks. I’m going to miss him every day. I have a big Scooby-sized hole in my heart. At the same time, I can reflect on the immense joy that he gave the world, me and my partner. I can hold both of those things to be true. I can be fucking sad, which I am. I could be joyful in the reflection of his beauty. Where I’m at in the world is continuing to do and hone my craft of holding it all. In that space, I can be a reflection for others. I can offer up empathy. I can show my whole heart. After all, I feel confident in that ability because I have been doing it in a way that’s protective and that comes with boundaries.
I’m not doing it to give me sympathy. I’m doing it for connection. Why am I doing it? Brené Brown always says, “Who has earned the right to hear your story? Not everyone has. There’s work in discerning who that is.” Certainly, the audience of You, Me, Empathy and The Feely Humans out there have earned that right. I wanted to share because Scooby has had a profound impact on my life and even my philosophy as a human.
It also touches upon these questions we can ask ourselves about what we post, when, for what reason and how we respond to people. My reaction to that comment was shocking. You are right. There’s a context there in most responses we get from people that we don’t fully understand. I’m triggered. Similar to Jason, I don’t know if I would feel anger. It reminds me of a message that we received on our Wellavtr Instagram account that I had been reflecting on since. This woman private messaged us with a video. She said, “I’m a big fan of your show. Have you guys considered doing a video? I saw you have done a little bit of video. It would be great for you guys to be posting things on YouTube and all this.” I responded and said, “We do have a YouTube channel.”
I had this moment of like, “Is she a fan or did she say that to fake it?” She was trying to sell us. That’s the context. She offers services to help podcasters with video and I took a moment to recognize that maybe we haven’t been that clear that we have a YouTube channel. The truth is it’s a newer thing for us. We are not bold about it but we do mention it often enough. I thought, “If she’s a fan of our show, wouldn’t she know it because we bring it up in many of our episodes and our newsletters?” I took it as an opportunity to evaluate why she might not realize it. Maybe we weren’t being clear.
Something that I learned over and over again is that people don’t necessarily process everything until they have seen it a ton or it’s in their face.
I could see myself seeing a photo of a dog and commenting, “Your dog is cute,” without realizing that the caption was indicating that the dog had passed away. I have probably done that before. I could see myself in those positions of making a mistake. At that moment, with this direct message that I responded to, I felt a little irritated. I have been reflecting a lot on why this is irritating me. It’s because I interpreted it as, is she trying to trick me into thinking she is a fan? That feels out of ethics for me because I don’t want fake conversations. I want a connection. I want realness. I want people to be transparent about who they are and why they are asking.We come into the world with a huge, beautiful capacity for empathy, and it's beaten out of us. Click To Tweet
I felt this righteousness of like, “How dare she? How many other podcasters is she reaching out to try to sell her services and come across as a big fan?” In my opinion, that’s a sleazy marketing tactic and I have experienced that over the years. The number of template emails I have received from people that you can tell they copied and pasted. Sometimes the font is the wrong size or the wrong color. They make it clear that this is a template that they pasted your name into. That stuff bothers me and it triggers me because it doesn’t feel ethical. I have realized over time that my version of ethics and the way that I perceive life is different for others. They have their reasons and their own context for why they are behaving that way and operating that way. I have done it, too. It’s humbling sometimes.
It doesn’t mean you have to have patience for it, though. To use your example, you could have deleted that. I get those all the time, either via Instagram or through email. It’s clear when it’s insincere. A lot of times, I delete them. That’s me setting a boundary. That’s me also recognizing what I can control. I agree and I empathize, Whitney, with the feeling of like, “They are ruining the system. They are making it harder for us who want to do these things that are pure, real and open-hearted.” What can I do about it? I can control what I input and how I set my boundaries. In the example of the comment on Scooby’s post, I could have deleted that comment. Maybe I wanted everyone to see to call him, her or them out. Maybe that was part of it. I haven’t reflected on that until this moment. Blocking and deleting are good boundary tools when it comes to social media, especially.
I love that point too. Certainly, the reason I responded to this woman is I wanted to call her out. I wasn’t doing it publicly. I didn’t say this but what I was trying to kindly and professionally say is, “If you were a fan, you would know that not only do we have a YouTube channel but Jason and I have been doing YouTube for ten-plus years. We already have a whole system.” I felt like she was treating me as if I was some inexperienced beginner podcaster who didn’t know. I look at that trigger and I think, “I get triggered when people don’t take me seriously and when people don’t understand me. I get triggered when I feel like I’m not being respected.” That’s a huge thing for me.
That’s our ego.
Those are such amazing opportunities when I’m putting someone in their place. To your point, too, you want to publicly call people out. Going back to Brené Brown, I always notice I hate it when people shame me. Sometimes I shame people, too. I can step back and recognize, “Calling someone else publicly, is that shaming them? Am I okay? Is that in alignment with my ethics?” Jason and I talk a lot about Cancel Culture and Accountability Culture. That’s huge right now. It’s a lot about calling people out. I see the benefits of that and I also see the harm. I’m an advocate for reducing shame but I have to examine my own rule and how I perpetuate shame too.
I want to talk about our deep interpersonal relationships, be that familial or the family we choose, whether that’s blood family or family of choice. One of the interesting parts with the backdrop of this pandemic, when we identify that maybe we have toxic dynamics with people that are close to us and how difficult it can be to either set firm and clear substantive boundaries with those people. In some cases, choose not to have people in our lives. We brought up our dear friend Adam that we want to connect you with at some point. One of the things that Adam talks about a lot publicly on his podcast and also in personal conversations is his decision to completely distance himself from all communication and interaction with certain family members and how difficult that has been for him.
I’m curious, Nōn, what your approach is. It’s one thing I suppose to set boundaries with anonymous people online we don’t know. The challenge of setting those boundaries or even severing a relationship with people that are close to us feels substantively different than blocking someone on social media. Have you experienced that in your life and to what degree? How have you navigated that in terms of communication and your emotional life?
It’s tough. I have certainly experienced a lot of it. I had a father who was pretty rageful, violent, not nice and not a good dad. It seemed that he isolated his anger towards me a lot, at least that’s how it felt certainly. By the time I was in my late twenties, I severed that tie completely. I told him, “You are not in my life.” He has since tried to get in touch with me via email and things like that. I have seen him infrequently, maybe once every few years, at a family event. It’s always awkward. It’s always like a quick handshake and then I avoid. I’m anxious the entire time. That has been hard and weird.
In the last couple of years, I have tried to bring more compassion in my mind to that relationship and what that looks like. By that, I mean thinking of him in the context of his own upbringing, presumably, from what I have heard, loveless childhood, I can reflect on that and understand like, “He had a tough go at it. This impacted his parenting.” Not to discount or not to excuse certainly but to provide context and maybe look at things more empathetically. That being said, we still don’t have a relationship.
The tough one is my family in general. My mother, in particular, I’m dealing with what that looks like now. She has been critical about the work I do. She does not like it. She thinks it’s negative. She thinks that talking about mental health and talking about my traumas and whatever, I should get over it and move on. We have had some interactions that have been shocking and diminishing. Years ago, we had a moment that I documented on my podcast. You should listen to it. There were about 90 minutes of her and her husband attacking me, trying to dismantle my whole worldview for reasons I don’t know to this day. Probably a lot of insecurity, guilt and shame that they are feeling and confusion that I don’t believe in their God, confusion around whatever.
That whole conversation, after an immense series of invalidation, ended with me talking about how when I grew up, I self-harmed. I cut myself. She said, “Prove it.” I pulled up my sleeve and showed her the said scars. The most perfect statement was said, which was, “I don’t see them.” It holds a lot of metaphorical weight and symbolic wait. That was a tough moment. We had done a therapy session together after that, which was not successful. Since then, she has said some awful things. She’s still clearly holding a lot of maybe guilt and anger toward me.
I don’t know what that boundary looks like. I’m still navigating it, honestly. A piece of me wants to cut her out. Another piece of me knows that would possibly bring more disruption. Maybe I need to find a place in my emotional boundary to say, “Happy Mother’s Day.” Keeping it surfaced and knowing that there is a clear boundary but not be like, “Mother, here is a boundary.” Not have to tell her because I don’t think she could take it or understand it. It’s hard because you are operating, in this case, with two different languages, two different opposing systems in a lot of ways, it has been difficult. It’s hard. The key is always checking in, going into therapy, figuring out what feels right, feels honoring and safe.
Is there a part of your internal narrative with all this, Nōn? I’m reflecting on conversations I have had with other friends who have experienced similar contexts with their parents as they’ve got older. I don’t know if it’s a societal norm but it’s something I have heard from other people. There’s a prediction that we ought to be close to our parents or family. If you are not close to your parents, your family, “something is wrong with you.” That’s a clunky way to try and say it. It seems to be a thing that other friends that I know to struggle with. This impetus, “I’ve got to have some semblance of connection.” Perhaps your mental health and your emotional wellness shouldn’t have that connection or manage the connection in such a way where it’s more surface level. Is that something you have rubbed up against or faced? It’s like, “I’m supposed to be close to them.”
I have certainly heard it a lot. It has such cultural import. In certain Hispanic cultures, there is an immense emphasis on family. That’s a value. That’s wonderful. Where it can go wrong is when a family is looked at as an intrinsic value. I don’t think it is. I don’t believe in families and intrinsic value. What does that mean? That means that they have to earn my respect. They have to earn my love. Love should not be conditional. I’m feeling like it is with certain family members. That shouldn’t be the case. There are a lot in our society that says, “Family is family.” That’s damaging and that’s denying themselves. In a lot of cases, that’s lifting or supporting a lot of violence, isolation and like, “You put that under the rug because they are family.” That’s no way to live. That’s deeply damaging.We should be asking ourselves every day: 'Is this true?' Click To Tweet
You and I have a similar experience with our fathers in terms of not having our fathers in our lives but being confronted by a lot of rages, anger, physical and emotional violence. I had a similar experience with my father growing up. As a component of not having a guiding masculine figure growing up, in some ways, my grandfather tried to fill that or some guys that my mom dated tried to fill that. As a young man, I didn’t have a consistently loving and guiding masculine presence. As I became an adolescent and a teenager, I remember not only being aware but owning my level of emotional sensitivity, feeling lost, scared and confused. The archetype that my classmates or my peers presented was very much repetition or recycling of the old masculine paradigm of dominate, control, oppress. The loudest, strongest and most aggressive guy in the room gets the rewards.
I remember trying that suit on for a little while like, “As a man, this is how I get all the things.” I remember trying on that suit of being kind of dickish, unfeeling and, “Screw everyone. I’m going to get what I want,” type of mentality. I remember feeling that was not who I was at the core of my being. I was so aware of trying on this persona that wasn’t me and that left me feeling even more confused and discouraged because I’m like, “They are telling me not to cry because if I cry, I’m weak, a pussy or whatever. Don’t show emotion, don’t show vulnerability because that will get you killed,” and all of these toxic debilitating messages.
For many years, I was like, “Does this mean I’m gay? Does this mean I have alternative sexuality that I don’t know about? I don’t feel like a man by their standards.” All this is to say knowing that since we have this similar background of shared experience with our fathers not being in our lives. How have you navigated and how do you continue to navigate being a deeply sensitive feeling man when we have been bombarded our entire lives that that is what we ought not to be?
Thank you for that empathy, Jason. You know this but maybe for the readers, the reality is that when we are teenagers, we are putting on a lot of armor, different suits and different identities. We are doing our fucking best to try to survive and to move through all the castes and systems within the high school, junior high and, etc. That’s scary so there’s a great deal of trying on different things. It’s okay to do that. To answer your question like you, I didn’t have a great father figure and it’s why I have always been, to this day, a bit more critical or I make men go through a lot more loops and steps to win my good graces or whatever. That’s on me. I don’t think that’s probably fair. However, I see sensitivity and feeling my feelings as superpowers.
I see them as immense tools for connection, healing, self-actualization, growth and all the stuff that I want to do in the world. To deny me of those things would be to cut off a big part of my heart. I don’t want to do that. I feel for the men out there or those who identify as men and feel like they need to be more masculine, strong or whatever. You don’t. The system that may be around you is reflecting that. Maybe you need to dismantle that system. Maybe you need to find safe people like Jason and Whitney, pockets of the universe, many will see you as you are and allow you to tap into your sensitivities because it is truly a superpower. It’s about perspective and finding your people.
I love that you said that, Nōn. If a reader out there feels like they are alone and nobody understands or empathizes with them, I have certainly felt that way a lot in my life, kind of the outsider, the black sheep or the weirdo. It’s reassuring to reflect on what you said that there are people out there who will love you, accept you, listen, and receive your journey, story, and perspectives, even if you feel the weirdest person in your town. “What am I? Am I an alien? I don’t even belong.” I have had those thoughts like, “I’m not from here.” That’s a whole other side conversation about that.
All of us have that sensitive, feely and outsider people have felt that feeling before. It’s so human.
It’s beautiful to have you reflect that beam of hope, which is real. As an offshoot of this exploration of our sensitivity and authenticity as men in this world, in relationships, I have struggled at times with certain partners or people I have dated trying to get me to adhere to their version of what they find to be masculine. It’s interesting because what I have observed in some spaces is that this response or backlash to men are getting too feminine, sensitive and feely. Here’s a two-week training where we are going to go to the outback, shoot a bunch of kangaroos, barbecue them, rip our shirts off, be manly, primal and have a primal brotherhood. I don’t want to throw them under the bus and I’m having a little bit of fun but it seems like I have noticed that there are a lot of, “You are too femi now. We need to reconnect you with your primal masculinity.”
I always find that messaging and that approach to feel for me, icky and judgmental like, “I don’t know that I even wanted to find myself on that spectrum of how masculine or feminine are you.” If anything, I feel at this point, Nōn, I came up with a phrase with my therapist where I feel I’m energetically androgynous. He was like, “That’s interesting. Tell me more what you mean about that.” It came out of my mouth in the middle of a session. I said, “I don’t think that I identify with the polarity of being this prototypical, whatever it is of how people define masculinity. You are assertive and aggressive. You take charge and you kill things or whatever that is. The other polarity, which is you are so nurturing, feely and sensitive.”
If anything, I feel I’m in all of it and I’m in this androgynous energetic space where I don’t even necessarily want to define it. Going back to the beginning of this episode, when we were talking about people wanting to pull you to the side, it’s like, “We don’t know what you are.” It’s like, “I don’t need to define it. I feel like I have prototypical masculine and feminine energies all of them inside of me.” Some of this marketing feels it’s tapping a not-enoughness button of like, “Jason, you don’t feel man enough come to this workshop.” What does that even mean, man enough?
It’s all tapping into our insecurities and fears. There is no enoughness. A thing that I have been trying to do more and more of is when I say the word but and I replace it with and to allow for all of it. It’s not like, “I am masculine but I also have these things.” It’s, “I am masculine, I am feely and sensitive.” It’s and instead of but. The but is speaking to a pitting against. A but is speaking to opposing forces. A but is speaking to the polarity or the binary but that doesn’t exist. It’s and. It’s not but.
Nōn, the big question I have left as we approach the finish line of this episode is looking kind of at the world and taking this big scope of a worldview. How would you encourage and how do you encourage on a mass level for humanity to have more empathy toward one another? One of the big things now is, as we have been talking about throughout this episode, the polarity, the divisiveness, anger and the vitriol.
It seems like right now that empathy, understanding and loving communication would serve humanity. I’m curious about what you think is in the way of that. If you could kind of wave a magic wand, which I’m sure you do have a magic wand somewhere in that cool-looking office. If you could have the septuplets of wands flowing at all times like an ancient deity, how would you implore people to create more empathy and be actionable about empathy in their lives?
It goes back to what I said before. It starts from within. I led a workshop at LCAD, Laguna College of Art and Design, and a lot of the feedback was overwhelmingly wonderful and one of the main takeaways was, I didn’t know I could have empathy for myself. It was mind-blowing and also immensely sad. It has to start from within. You have to be curious, explore and journey enough to figure out what that means for you and it’s different for each of us. It means a lot of figuring out our boundaries, figuring out what fills our hearts, what makes us excited and happy. It’s figuring out what our passions are.
Those are lifelong journeys but it’s building that practice and those muscles of reflection and curiosity in our feelings and our every day and we take it outward. Outward looks like a whole lot of stumbling and a lot of getting used to the uncomfortable spaces. You were talking about anti-vax, vax and stuff and these are polar and charged conversations. How do we get to a place where we can show up empathy for those conversations? How can we provide more context? How can we consider what that person has or hasn’t gone through? How do we be more curious, ask questions and not assume, don’t show up with armor? Don’t show up with pre-judgment. Allow for things to be as they are and be as present as possible is the key.
That’s a beautiful spell you cast with those wands. For you, dear reader, if you want to dig into even more of Nōn’s work in the world, you can check out all of his links, You, Me, Empathy, Nōn’s podcast, and the Feely Human Collective. Also, all of the great workshops that he runs, and the incredibly beautiful pins, which I also need to obtain a few of because I have a denim jacket that is covered with pins. I feel kind of pseudo-Iron Man that if someone were to fire at me, it would deflect any armament or bullets. Probably not but I’m going to put that to the test. Not going to put that but the schwag, workshops are mighty. The podcast is beautiful, as are you, Nōn. If there is anything else, tune into his podcast to hear the amazing theme song he wrote. I have been listening and I went, “This is a great theme song.” Is that you? Is that your voice? Did you write it?Because it ends, that's what gives it meaning. Click To Tweet
I did not write it. My dear friend David Garbowsky is a musician and composer. I said, “I want this vibe.” He composed it and he sang. It’s perfect. I love it.
It’s masterful, beautiful, sweet and again feels like you so if you dear reader loved what you felt from Nōn, please dig into all of his wonderful offerings and beautiful, uplifting, creative resources. With that, we appreciate you. Thanks for being with us on This Might Get Uncomfortable.
Thanks for having me!
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- You, Me, Empathy podcast
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- You, Me, Empathy – Instagram
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- Chasing the Big Break: How Weaponizing Trust Plays a Part in the Road to Success – Previous Episode
- The State of Wellness: On the Practices Around Well-Being and Mindfulness with Jeff Krasno – Previous episode
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- YouTube – This Might Get Uncomfortable
About Nōn Wels
Nōn Wels is a writer, mental health advocate, creator of the You, Me, Empathy podcast, and founder of The Feely Human Collective.
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