November 29, 2017
Empathy. Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. Defined by the dictionary as the vicarious experience of feelings. In an era of instant information, internet anonymity, and anyone with a cell phone having a nearly global reach, empathy is something that we need now more than ever.
We all have our own struggles with empathy. Some of us have too much empathy, needlessly shouldering the emotional burdens of others. Some have too little empathy, hurling insults at others for things as simple as having a different taste music.
I don’t intend to delve into politics, but especially in today’s extremely heated political arena empathy could have the power to calm debates and open floors for intellectual discourse.
I am an optimist, and I would like to think that most people are rational and open minded, and that the anger and vitriol we hear on the internet and television is only a minority opinion, but where does a lack of empathy come from?
Suffice to say we are all selfish to some degree, and we hold our thoughts and opinions very closely, but empathy or a lack thereof is something we’ve experienced in almost every facet of our lives, even daily.
We encounter empathy when our parents come home tired and worn out from a hard day at work. As children it’s not as easy a concept to grasp, but instead of acting indifferently, we can help our parents, or at the very least show that we have some understanding for their current mood.
We encounter empathy when we’re walking in the street and someone asks us for money for food. Do we help them out? Or do we keep our faces forward and keep walking?
We encounter empathy when our spouse is clearly flustered and without thought or consideration we might ask them what they’re making us for dinner.
Empathy is a choice, and we can deal with it with both action and inaction. Even as an empathetic person, it’s not always easy to deal with emotional situations, but like anything we can get better with practice.
One way that we can address and manage our own feelings, especially anger, is using the HALT technique. HALT is a simple acronym that stands for Hungry Angry Lonely Tired, and it’s used to keep anger and other emotions in check. It’s a technique you can use to address your own emotions, and when you feel as if you’re going to have an emotional outburst, stop and ask yourself if you might be Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. It’s not to say that your emotions will stabilize by simply satiating your hunger or going for a jog if you feel angry, but it’s a start towards understanding yourself and managing your own emotions.
Managing emotions starts with knowing ourselves. Getting to know and understand yourself is infinitely more important than getting to know or understand anyone else in your life. The simple act of addressing why you’re angry, sad, happy, or any emotion is essential to managing your mental and emotional well being. Learn to recognize what triggers your emotions.
Another key to your personal well being is understanding that it’s not wrong to experience negative emotions. If you’re feeling sad or depressed, it’s not your job to fix yourself or change your mood immediately. Fear, sadness, and anxiety are all normal parts of life, and it would be abnormal if you were blissfully happy all of the time. On the other hand it’s good to recognize your emotions and be clear which emotion that you’re experiencing.
A few months ago I tried out the Headspace Guided Meditation app, which I would recommend as it’s free and a good start to incorporating mindfulness and meditation into your life. I was experiencing a lot of anxiety, and the main thing that was recommended in the Anxiety series in the app was labelling your feelings as you’re experiencing them. During the earlier courses during guided meditation, you’re asked to pay attention and single out noises around you. You’re asked to recognize that the noises are present around you, whether they be wind or a barking dog, and rather than try to shut them out pinpoint and listen to them one by one. During the Anxiety segment they ask you to do the same thing with your emotions, the point being not to try to shut them out of your life, but notice that they are there. Eventually negative emotions won’t be monsters that have a hold of your life, but passersby that you can manage more easily.
A simple way to incorporate empathy for others into your life is to go out of your way to do little things for people. If you hold an elevator for someone that’s in a rush, you might be giving them much needed relief, if only for a second. Maybe your spouse or relative had a rough day and you can surprise them by cooking dinner or cleaning the house. Things as small as common courtesies have the potential to reach farther than you might ever see.
A good way to start this practice is to try to do something nice for someone every day, no matter how small. Do something for someone without them asking. Call your mom for a few minutes and ask her how she’s doing. Hold a door open for someone.
Work on finding your own well being, and take time to notice when others might be in need. Don’t sweat the small stuff or let trifling matters bother you.
- Being empathetic starts with you. Be mindful of the consequences of your actions. Don’t let your own emotions overwhelm you. Try the HALT technique, meditation, or find other activities to help you manage your emotions.
- Don’t feel bad for experiencing negative emotions.
- Be mindful of others. Take time out of your day to do something for someone else.
I would highly recommend the speech This is Water by David Foster Wallace. It’s extremely clear and poignant on the subject of empathy.
I would also highly recommend Terry Crew’s new Youtube channel, and especially his 5 Keys to Self Discipline.