Lets talk about you and me
Lets talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be
Lets talk about em-pa-thy
Empathy is one of those terms, like vulnerability, that has been popping up in my life lately. It is relevant because I think when we feel people aren’t empathetic to us it removes the willingness to be authentic and vulnerable, and essentially it has a negative impact on relationships.
One of these days I’ll write a post that doesn’t quote Brené Brown, but today is not that day, folks. In this video (its short, sweet, and if you have five minutes you should go watch it) she describes empathy as “the skill set to bring compassion alive”, and “communicating deep love for people so they know they aren’t alone”.
Brené Brown has another video called Empathy vs. Sympathy that I saw in countless classes throughout my degree, it’s brilliant and worth sharing. She talks about the important differences between being empathic and sympathetic, how empathy fuels connection and cites Theresa Wiseman’s 4 Attributes of Empathy, which are:
- Perspective taking
- Staying out of judgement
- Recognizing emotion in others
- Communicating the emotion you see
My favourite line from this video is, “Rarely if ever does an empathic response start with “at least…”.” I always think about that when I’m about to say “well at least” to someone and notice how those comments can impact people and relationships, and what better alternatives can be said that foster empathy.
Feeling WITH Others
In both of the videos I linked to above, Dr. Brown talks about “feeling with someone” and I love this language and imagery. Often, we don’t need easy solutions to challenges, we just need people to stick by our side, and let us know they understand how we’re feeling. Sometimes I think of empathy as “voluntary vulnerability”, when people say “I get it, I’ve been there too” and it requires opening themselves up to let you know that you’re not alone.
While I was writing this post I kept thinking about how the challenging experiences we go through actually enable us to be more empathetic to people. If you’ve got your heart-broken, or lost someone you love, gone through a serious illness, moved away from a place you loved, or whatever difficult things you’ve faced it actually enables you to understand and empathize with people when they go through their own hard things.
Even though life has its share of hard, sad, challenging experiences – the silver lining is that we can learn to be more empathetic and loving to people.
You can repurpose every moment of feeling hurt, let down, left out, unheard, forgotten, and use it to love people harder. You can use it to understand their struggle and to empathize with them.
Empathy is wonderful, it grows relationships, makes people feel connected – why wouldn’t it be your go to response? The thing is empathy can be hard. One of the biggest challenges we face when practicing and discussing empathy is that if you don’t know the feeling, it is hard to empathize. You might have a friend going through something and you’ve totally been where they are, but if you’ve never experienced it what do you say? I know I’ve had experiences where I just didn’t know what to say or how to relate to what a friend was going through, but recognizing and honouring their struggle is a good place to start.
Another challenge to empathy I’ve experienced is people thinking the thing you’re going through isn’t that bad or they want you to empathize with them. A while back I was at the grocery store after working an 8 hour shift and I was staring at the sushi bar a little longer than necessary. A lady asked me if I was okay and I laughed and said “yeah I just got off work and I’m tired” and she launched into why she was more tired than me and I didn’t have a reason to be complaining. It struck me that she wanted to make it clear that she was more entitled to feeling tired. I also thought about how exhausted she must have been for that to be her immediate reaction.
Empathy isn’t always easy, and it requires energy we might not always feel like we have but moments of empathy from strangers, or when friends surprise you with how much love and empathy they can give you, can be so meaningful and I love being on the end where I can empathize with others.
A story of empathy that I’m inspired by is from the book Love Does by Bob Goff. He talks about being in a car accident and having someone drive through a stop sign and hit his car. But his first instinct was to go check on the other driver. It was an elderly woman and he talks about how she was worried she wouldn’t be allowed to drive anymore and he empathized with her. Now, I’ve actually been in a similar situation and empathy was not my first thought, which is why this story really strikes me. He was not angry his car was totalled, he was empathetic to a woman who might lose her license.
I think if we interact with people from a place of love, like Bob, we are able to empathize with people and connect with them in ways that are truly meaningful.
So this week’s take away?
- Empathy does not need to be earned. If you feel like you are working to earn empathy from someone who is a big problem. If you share something with someone and they need you to share more or justify why you deserve empathy, well that’s just frustrating and they probably aren’t the best person to talk to.
- Practice self-care to give you strength and energy to empathize and care about other people. If you don’t change your batteries you burn out and lose the ability to love people well and empathize.
- Be as empathetic as possible to everyone you encounter