People experience empathy differently. Some experience it in terms of physical sensations; their mouth dries, their heart-rate picks up, they find their muscles tensing or relaxing accordingly. Some experience it mentally, finding their thought-patterns moulding to match those of the people they’re with; if the mind they’re faced with is fast-paced and neurotic, they’ll start thinking the same way. Most people experience empathy as an emotional reaction – hence the word itself. When other people are happy, they catch their joy. When others are upset, they adopt their sadness. If others are angry or frustrated, they become agitated. Despite the myriad ways empathy can manifest, it ultimately boils down to a single definition; Empathy is the ability to sense and feel how others are feeling.
Empathy is natural. Everyone has it. It’s an evolutionary reaction that was developed for the strength of the tribe. By identifying ourselves in others, we learn to care about each other, which in turn gives us motivation to help and protect those around us. Ergo, we help and support others, ensuring the group will live to see another day.
But if empathy is a natural human reaction, why is it we describe some people as being exceptionally empathetic? The answer is that while empathy occurs naturally, it also comes with a volume dial. We decide how much or how little attention we give to our empathetic reactions, and the habits that form out of that decide how much empathy we give on the regular.
Some people think empathy leaves us vulnerable. We get soft, we become too susceptible to the feelings and whims of others. Most of us are taught to be afraid of our feelings in case we’re seen as “weak”. I say we need to embrace our feelings and the feelings of those around us because they allow us to be stronger, better people. Honing our empathy like a muscle eventually manifests an even more powerful quality: emotional intelligence. By developing an understanding of people’s feelings, you’ll notice several things happening all by themselves, both for yourself and for other people.
The first is that you’ll get along with people better. When you recognize and respond to others’ feelings, they learn to trust you. In their eyes, you become a safe and trustworthy person to be around. People skills of this level are not to be lightly dismissed. Our entire lives are built on a bedrock of interpersonal relationships; family, romance, and work are, really, just groups of people that we relate to over different mutual criteria. Knowing this, it becomes obvious that learning to understand and work with people is a universally applicable skill. You’ll be better respected in your work. You’ll be a more attentive and reliable partner. Your family will appreciate the amount of support you give to them unconsciously. The way people relate to you is bound to improve across the board.
On a more personal note, you’ll find your frustration levels will decrease. See, it gets harder to be angry or upset with someone when you can imagine where they’re coming from. You’ll develop the ability to understand why people are behaving a certain way, and also realize your role in making them act that way. Most of the time when we feel others are behaving irrationally what’s actually going on is that we have unknowingly triggered them. Emotional damage from their history is reacting to present circumstances that remind them of a time they were threatened or hurt. Knowing this is vital because it allows us to take things less personally. When you don’t understand someone’s reaction, it probably has nothing to do with you. Remembering this makes it easier to keep a level head and be empathetic.
So how do we develop empathy? You would think it starts by being more empathetic with others, but the truth is that empathy starts with the way you treat yourself. We make just as many convictions, judgments, and assumptions about our own behaviours as we do about the behaviours of others – we’re our own worst critic. This, again, stems from our fear of emotions making us weaker, and the result is that we fail to be good caregivers to ourselves. So fire the judge who wants to protect you from your own vulnerability. When strong feelings emerge, embrace them. Listen to them. Take them to heart. The strongest sense of empathy begins in how we treat ourselves.