by Kahlia Meeuwsen, Lifestyle Columnist
Published in Lifestyle on 5th November, 2018
In our world, it can become so easy to focus fully on the ups and downs in your own life. While it's important to do so, it's also important to care about the ups and downs in the lives of others. When you can truly understand those around you, you gain a deeper understanding that we all have stories, difficult times and goals we want to achieve.
Empathy is key in living a life in which you can connect with others and understand what it feels like to be part of a larger community. While others are wrapped up in their own issues, you can escape your own mind and learn how to use empathy as an important tool.
At its core, empathy is connecting with the idea that we are all human. We all have stories, tough times and obstacles. When you empathize with someone, you place yourself in their shoes and allow yourself to imagine how they must be feeling at a given time.
This is one of the things many of us have forgotten in recent years. Instead of considering the perspectives of others, we begin to make rash judgments. We decide that people are just "bad" or "lazy" rather than considering how they might be feeling.
Imagine seeing a homeless person begging for money on the street, or someone on the bus who is dressed in ragged clothing, perhaps smelling unclean. Deciding that such a person just isn't doing the "right" things, or that their situation is a reflection of who they are represents a lack of empathy.
On the other hand, taking a moment to ask yourself what might be going on in their lives and how they might be feeling is empathy. Imagine yourself in their position. What might drive you to become homeless? What would have to happen for you to forget self care?
Often, these things are symbols of inner pain more than they are signs that a person is just not living "correctly". That person with the ragged clothing may suffer from depression. The homeless person may be doing all they can just to eat. It's worth taking into consideration.
While they might seem similar, there's a big difference between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy is the basic ability to understand that someone is going through a rough time, and being kind to them in that regard.
However, empathy rests on a deeper level, in which you really place yourself in the perspective of someone else. In your mind, you take on the role of another and imagine what it feels like to live their life and share their experiences. This allows you to understand how you would feel in the situations you may be going through, and therefore feel more deeply for their situation.
Narcissism can be a common aspect of human life. We don't always mean to behave in that way, but it can be easy to get wrapped up in your own concerns and issues. After all, you're the closest thing to you, so it's easiest to focus on.
However, that can also cause a lot of negativity for you. Zeroing in on your problems, ruminating on them, can drive up anxiety levels and stressors that leave you feeling fried. When this happens, one of the best ways to ease your own stress is to help others.
This can include volunteering at shelters or in a charity organization. Whatever it is that you're passionate about can be a great escape. Otherwise, helping out friends and family members can help to take your mind off your own stress.
Not only does empathy help you to connect more deeply with others and help them with issues they may be having, but it can help to relieve your own stress as well. When we place ourselves in the shoes of others, we can see that there's a lot more out there than our problems. It doesn't make them less valid, but it can remind us that we aren't alone.
When you really allow yourself to take on the perspective of someone else, it can help you to connect more deeply with them. You begin to understand what different aspects of their life might feel like, and see what causes might explain why they behave in certain ways, or have certain worries.
Keep in mind that there are situations when this deeper information doesn't rationalize the person's behaviors. By no means does using empathy mean creating excuses for those who are behaving in rude or toxic ways. It does not mean that it's your responsibility to help that person.
What it does mean, is understanding those who have human faults. Empathy can be useful in seeing toxic individuals for who they are and giving those who aren't toxic the benefit of the doubt when they need it. Combined with logic, empathy can be a powerful thing.
We all go through rough times, have unpleasant feelings and deal with experiences that can damage us. Empathy means looking at those experiences without judgment. Yes, some can go through situations that are far more damaging than others, but that doesn't mean that any of those experiences aren't valid.
When we understand that we're all just trying to live our best lives and have our own problems that can get in the way, we can feel less alone. Some issues and experiences can leave us feeling completely isolated, but we don't have to feel that way when there are others we can reach out to.
There are so many experiences, conditions and issues out there that can leave us feeling so alone. On top of that, problems like depressions and anxiety can compound everyday issues and make them feel so much larger than they may actually be.
Consequently, it's really no wonder how we can get enveloped by the things going on in our own lives. However, when we stop and work on creating empathy for others, we learn that there are people out there with similar experiences. We aren't alone, and in working together it might become a little more easy to deal with our own issues.
When you're feeling isolated, issues like bills and other day to day things can become so worrisome. Understanding that we aren't alone can help to put those problems back into perspective, allowing you to tackle them with more confidence.
While empathy may not seem like a huge thing, it's much more important than we give it credit for. It's one of those things that we may not realize is missing until we start to see the effects that a lack of empathy can bring.
When we stop trying to empathize and connect with others, a number of unpleasant effects can ripple outward, creating a world that is a lot less kind to those who need it. Below, we're going to take a look into some of the biggest issues that can begin when we forget just how important empathy can be.
Without empathy, it can be easy to forget how to connect with those who have been victims of some kind of negative situation. In some cases, we can begin to forget that these people are in fact, human. On the other hand, we can also begin to blame victims when we don't take the time to understand their situation.
When you see a natural disaster on the news, it can be easy to ignore. They're faces on a screen, often far away from your location. With empathy, we understand that these are people just like us, trying to live their lives and going through something terrible. However, without it, we don't make that connection, and those suffering receive less help that they may need desperately.
In other situations, we may even start to blame victims rather than understanding their plight. A lack of empathy is what happens when we ask victims of rape how they were dressed, or victims of abuse why they didn't leave the abuser sooner.
It's exceedingly important to place yourself in the position of these people. Gain an understanding for how awful their experience or situation is, and remember that the same kinds of things can happen to anyone.
One of the worst forms of cognitive bias that we can experience is when we make the judgment that a person is in a given situation because they did something wrong or bad. For example, that someone is homeless because they're lazy or somehow not good enough to keep a job.
However, when it comes to ourselves, most don't tend to place these kinds of harsh judgments on themselves. For example, if you lose your job, it may be due to downsizing, nasty bosses, or any number of reasons. It's rarely something you may blame yourself for.
When you really think about it, it's really harsh to decide that someone else somehow deserves their bad experiences, but yours are just a bad thing that happened to you. It's worth taking a step back to consider that maybe the experiences of the other person are due to something outside their control.
When we concern ourselves less with the experiences of others, our own experiences can become much larger. In time, we can find that we start to become a lot more stressed out by our own problems, or begin to cultivate anxiety that consumes our attention and wastes our energy.
Furthermore, we can pick up a very self-centered view when it comes to our problems. We can begin talking about our issues to others much more often while ignoring that whoever we're talking to likely has their own problems as well, which we've begun to ignore.
Whether you consider yourself to be an empathetic person or not, there are plenty of things to consider that can help you to cultivate empathy and see the world in a new way. By remembering these methods, you can create more empathy in yourself and make better connections with the outside world.
The most important step in generating empathy is taking the time to place yourself in someone else's shoes. Imagine being homeless, or having an abusive partner or parent, or whatever situation you might discover that someone else has gone through.
When you place yourself in that position, you start to gain an understanding about what it feels like. You'll also start to consider how you'd want to be treated if you were in that position. Therein, lies the golden rule of treating others the way you'd want to be treated. It's a key starting point for treating others with more care.
Instead of assuming that someone is lazy, gross, or just bad in some other way, hit the pause button. Take a step back and imagine people treating you like it was your fault you had lost a job or experienced some other kind of setback. It's not likely that would feel very good, so why do it to someone else?
Reaching for the easy judgment might take a lot less work, but it creates negative mindsets that cycle and harden until you become someone who lives in a bubble of your own opinions. It might not be easy to give others the benefit of the doubt, and sometimes maybe that other person is dishonest or lazy, but those experiences are the minority among many who just need a little care.
When you're used to thinking in certain ways for a long time, it can be tough to pull yourself back from making harsh judgments. This is very similar to when you experience intense levels of self-criticism. The cycles can easily go on if they aren't checked, and you often need to make the conscious effort to stop them.
It can help to start noticing the nasty judgments you make, and what triggers them. The more you notice these thoughts, the easier it will be to stop yourself and re-route your thinking. Instead of immediately judging someone, consider what might be going on in their lives to cause whatever that trigger is for you, as well as why it's triggering to you.
Remember that one of the common pitfalls people can fall into is telling someone else that their problem isn't worth their energy because there's someone else in the world who has it worse.
In the vast majority of negative experiences, there will always be someone who has it worse. That doesn't make your problem invalid. Invalidating someone else's issue for this purpose can leave them feeling worse, not better. Although most of the time it is an attempt to place the issue into perspective, it's important to keep in mind that whatever the problem is, it is still a problem.
While empathy is key for gaining a deeper understanding of the feelings of others, as well as the problems that may plague them, it isn't a way to resolve those problems. Empathy means genuinely listening and caring, it isn't fixing things for other people so that they don't have to.
Taking the problems of others onto yourself isn't a healthy way to exist, so it's important to create this boundary for yourself if that's something you feel you might do. Listen, care, and help when you can, but don't expect to be able to resolve everyone else's problems magically.
Active listening is a great way to show someone else that you care what's going on in their life. It goes beyond the standard conversations where we may lose interest or take part in the conversation just so we can talk about our own things.
This really becomes a problem when we stop trying to care. It's one thing when you genuinely have a lot on your mind and are having trouble focusing, but another thing entirely to be in a conversation with someone else for the sole purpose of hearing yourself speak.
When we get wrapped up in our own things, we tend to forget that other people even have problems, or feelings, or concerns. They become background pieces in our own story. However, keep in mind that each person has a story, and they are the main character in that story, just as you are in yours.
What that means is that their thoughts and feelings are meaningful too, so it's a good idea to try not to set your loved ones on the back burner while you stress over bills or work or whatever else may be going on. That's not to say that you should ignore your own problems or refrain from sharing them, but that balance is important to handling your own life and being there for others.