One of the most powerful things to have in the world is empathy.
Empathy is the earnest and sincere cousin of sympathy. It is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person; to be able to put yourself in other people’s shoes.
As kids, we were taught the definition of empathy, how it was different to sympathy and why it was an important value to have.
But I feel like we were never taught how to use it or when we should be empathic.
Empathy is Easy as EFG
Understandably, empathy is assumed to come naturally for us. For many people, it does; especially when a close friend or family endures hardship. However, it is possible to see that we’re quite selective when it comes to our empathic response.
Sharing the feelings of someone we know is easy. We do it subconsciously without hesitation. But when another person, perhaps a stranger or someone who isn’t close to us, undergoes the same personal burden, it might be harder for us to harbour the same empathic energy towards them.
In a similar vein, we have empathy for situations we feel passionate about. For example, I’ve been a dog lover since I was young. It is incredibly hard for me to face any situations where a dog is harmed even in the slightest as I feel immense empathy for them. On the contrary, my friend although a caring and loving person, doesn’t understand why I had to cover my eyes and ears in the first few minutes of John Wick.
Empathy was a value I thought I had knuckled down well. My childhood wasn’t without adversity so growing up, I was easily moved by people’s stories of misfortune. It was something I supposedly had been tested and scored well upon in my pre-admission tests and interview for medicine. My placement supervisors always described my interactions with sick patients as caring and positive.
So surely I was empathic enough right?
Recently, I came to a realisation that I never understood empathy.
The unknowing truth was that I only practiced empathy when it was convenient for me. Empathy was only given within the realm of my comfort zone. It was selective empathy to suit me, my values and I, not the other person.
The hard truth about empathy is putting ourselves in other people’s shoes even when we feel uncomfortable or when their lifestyle and circumstances don’t align with ours.
For many people including myself, the reach of our empathy is limited to our ideals and beliefs; it rarely extends beyond that. Now, this isn’t at all a bad thing; it is completely natural and makes sense with the type of world we live in today.
What Does it Mean?
Expanding our reach of empathy isn’t hard at all. It actually doesn’t require much more effort than usual. It just requires a little bit more thought, processing and acceptance.
When someone’s words or actions affect me (regardless of whether it is a mistake or intentional), instead of using my judgement, I try to connect with them through empathy. I try to channel the energy that I feel when I’m empathetic to a close friend, family member or for something I am passionate about.
The things that go through my mind are:
- What are they feeling right now? What reasons might they have for feeling this way?
- Could I have done something similar if I was in their position?
- If yes, what would I want the other person to feel and say?
Of course, if the situation is with someone whom I’m not close to at all, if it’s about something I don’t really care about or even if it affects me negatively, it becomes difficult. But that’s the reason why doing this is so hard. It’s not the easy way which is to not give empathy, judge and carry on with our lives. The difficult way is to provide them with the same level of empathy you can possibly provide within your means, even if you feel uncomfortable.
One great thing about this is that it’s helped me deal with people. When someone says something negative about me, previously, I would have felt upset, inferior and possibly thought about not-so-great things about the person in return. Inevitably, I didn’t solve any emotional angst I had and carried it internally. Now, I wonder at the different possibilities and look at them with empathy.
- Did I do anything to make them say that? Is it valid?
- If I were in their shoes and met someone like myself, could I say that about myself?
- Why are they saying that? Is it me? Is it an insecurity or problem they have with themselves?
- Are there any other explanations why they may have said that? Poor choice of words? They actually didn’t mean it?
While this is a very in-depth example that I want to expand in another post, the thoughtful and quizzical nature can apply to everything in life where other people’s words and actions may affect me. For example, someone driving slow (new town, new route or new car), someone giving me poor customer service (bad day or potentially losing their job soon) or someone walking a dog that is aggressive towards my dog (a rescue dog, fostering a dog, a well-trained dog that was attacked by another dog and now is scared…)
Change Your World with Non-Selective Empathy
There is so much more to empathy than we think. When I started to challenge my empathic skills and broaden my scope, a whole new world opened up to me. I became a kinder person towards other people, myself and at life. In return, the world became a much more loving and kinder place.