Imagine having a partner who would be incapable of understanding what you’re going through. A partner who could only interpret your feelings if they went through the identical experiences you’ve endured. A partner with a stifling sense of empathy and compassion.
A partner who lacks empathy would undoubtedly become a pain to deal with. First, you’d get into fights due to miscommunication, then foster distrust and contempt towards them, and soon after, you’d end up with a broken heart as a result.
I know this all sounds bleak and unrealistic. But there’s much truth in it.
Today, many people keep sabotaging their relationships because they themselves lack empathy. Therefore, developing this skill is detrimental to our love and life in general.
But there’s a widespread societal misconception that’s holding people back from developing empathy – they believe it’s a trait that you’re born with, that is, something unlearnable.
Needless to say, I disagree with that belief. Multiple studies show that empathy is not a trait but a skill. Therefore, you can learn or improve it.
So buckle up, fuckers – we’re going to take a deep dive into this thing called empathy. I will explain what it is, how to cultivate it, what barriers prevent people from cultivating it, and how to leap over them.
What is empathy
Empathy is defined as understanding and sharing another person’s feelings and perspectives. It’s the ability to step into the shoes of someone else. Or, as Carl Rogers would put it, “it’s the ability to perceive the internal frame of another person.”
But if we really want to grasp empathy, it may be worth deconstructing it to its smallest two ingredients.
These are a) the ability to absorb and mirror a person’s emotions and b) the ability to piece together what individual emotions that person felt and why they felt them.
For example, let’s say your friend tells you a secret. He pulls you close and whispers, “Billie just dumped me. What can I do to stop feeling like shit?”
If you have your empathy skills on point, you’re going to feel bad when your friend tells you about the tragic news (you absorb and mirror their emotions).
Next, you’re probably going to want to understand your friend’s situation further. So you would ask them follow-up questions (trying to piece together what they feel and why).
Whenever you’re trying to build empathy, what you’re basically doing is practicing those two core abilities: absorbing feelings and piecing them together into a coherent picture.
Why empathy matters
If you haven’t been paying attention, the better your empathy skills get, the easier you foster trust, respect, and affection in your relationships – whether romantic or not – and the more fights and overall stress you avoid.
But the benefits don’t stop there. A good dose of empathy is also proven to help you become more psychologically resilient, resourceful, productive, and emotionally intelligent.
By now, I hyped up this empathy thing to the point where you’re probably questioning how to build it. Well, you’re in luck. Below, I listed 7 practical ways on how to do it.
1. work on BROADENING your self-awareness
Broadening your self-awareness means becoming better at noticing your actions, including the emotions and intentions behind them.
The general consensus is that by getting better at observing and noticing your own internal world, you’ll also get better at doing the same for somebody else’s. So here’s how to start with that.
Step 1: notice what you’re doing
Make it a habit to ask yourself, “What am I doing at this moment?”
Have you spent the last 4 days glued to Facebook? Are you playing Zelda for the 49th hour? Did you just spend the previous 3 hours binge-eating ice cream?
Get clear on how you’re spending your time. Then, get clear on the distractions that keep you from noticing this – and every other – moment.
Even better, remove those distractions. Delete your social media, trash your Xbox, try meditating, and if you’re feeling really bold, do a full digital detox.
Don’t get me wrong here; an occasional escape from reality is healthy. The issue arises when people do it so much that they forget entirely about the things and people around them.
Step 2: Notice what you’re feeling
I learned about this was when I started meditating to feel better after a past breakup. It was shocking at first. I was like, “oh shit, I feel worthless and anxious. Oh, double shit, now I feel even more worthless and anxious for feeling worthless and anxious!”
You’re probably going to come to the same surprises and conclusions when trying to notice what you’re feeling. Don’t be alarmed by this. It might feel weird, but it’s proven the be therapeutic in the long term and thus worthy of enduring.
Like with meditation, don’t judge yourself too harshly when you’re trying to notice how you feel. Treat yourself with kindness – the same way you would treat a friend.
Step 3: Connect the two
When you get good at noticing your actions and emotions, you’re going to be able to make sense of your faulty emotional/behavior patterns. Likewise, you’re going to have an easier time noticing the same patterns in others.
For example, when I began to recognize how pissed off I got whenever other people didn’t take me seriously, two things happened.
First, I noticed that I’m being/acting angry, and so I changed my behavior to something more appropriate before someone would get bitch-slapped. Second, I found it easier to empathize with other people who fell into the same or similar faulty emotional/behavior patterns.
2. Become proactively curious about strangers
Wait, I have to like…talk to people?
I get that this technique might not to be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you want to develop empathy, it’s beneficial to commit to it.
On the one hand, you can go easy on yourself and just begin by greeting the strangers who walk by you. But on the other, you can start with initiating full-blown conversations if you feel comfortable about it.
And these shouldn’t be your generic chats about the weather, by the way. The conversations you initiate should be aimed at really digging into a person’s life. However, avoid coming across as an interviewer when you do so.
3. BECOME PROACTIVELY CURIOUS ABOUT the people you love
Like becoming curious about strangers, becoming the same towards your partner or friends also leads to improved empathy. One way of going about it is by asking additional questions amid conversations. Here are a few examples:
- What do you mean?
- Tell me more about that?
- Really, what else?
- Oh, so the key point you’re making is XYZ?
- No way, tell me more?
- Did that piss you off the most?
- What made you most mad?
- How was it like?
- What did that make you feel?
- Wait. So you’re saying XYZ?
- So, what you’re trying to tell me is XYZ, right?
4. RECOGNISE the emotional cues of others
Everyone is broadcasting emotions when interacting with you. Sometimes you can see or feel them clearly, other times less so.
To elevate those empathy skills of yours, try analyzing what emotions are the people around you transmitting. Look for the subtle cues behind their words and actions – pauses, fluctuations in pitch, facial expressions.
For example, when you ask someone for help, it’s way different when they gaze up into your eyes and graciously respond with “sure! No problem,” than when they respond with “ok…fine,” in a wishy-washy tone and with their eyes aimed straight to the ground.
5. walk in another person’s shoes
When we try our best to imagine the inner lives of others – be that less or more fortunate, we build empathy and compassion. And while many people believe that you can’t really empathize with others, especially those radically different from you, I disagree.
It is very possible to get a solid grasp of other people’s feelings, beliefs, values, and experiences. We, as humans, are not so different from one another. At least not so much that we’re unable to embark into another person’s inner world.
Take Gandhi, for instance. He never became an Untouchable (Dalit), but spending years living as a poor farmer without a doubt brought him closer to the reality of their lives.
In some cases, people’s lives do seem almost incomprehensible to us – an enigma we just can’t wrap our head around entirely. For instance, I would have great difficulty relating to a starving kid in Africa, but that does not deter me from trying my best to imagine their inner lives. And when I do – even if it’s without absolute success, my empathy grows.
But now it’s your turn.
Try to imagine the inner workings of someone. Be that Steve Jobs or a bum sleeping on the outskirts of New York. When you’re done, reflect on how you felt. Did you feel any different? What person did you try to empathize with? Did you have any difficulties with the practice, and why?
6. ponder on your relation to the world
Over the years of relationship and breakup consulting, I’ve picked up numerous exercises that help people build-essential relational skills – one of which is empathy. Many of them didn’t work, but this one did wonders. So let me share it with you.
- Go and sit somewhere where there is a lot of people and begin observing them. Keep looking at them for a few minutes. Examine their expressions, scrutinize their body language, then try to think about how they feel at the moment.
- After doing this for a few minutes, remind yourself of a crucial and often omitted truth: You’re just like them. You also have your own sets of issues, worries, pet peeves, dreams, desires, fears, and ambitions.
- Ponder on the fact that each one of the people you see around you has experienced times of love, joy, anxiety, shame, sorrow, and frustration. They all had their wins and downfalls, some better, some worse. Like you, they’re human. Try to ‘feel-in’ or relate to their fragile humanness.
After repeating this exercise for a few weeks, notice how you feel and behave. Write down your findings. More often than not, you’re probably going to start treating people less as objects or labels but more like, well…people. When this happens, you’re bettering your empathy – congrats!
WHAT HOLDS PEOPLE BACK FROM DEALING WITH THEIR LACK OF EMPATHY
Humans are hardwired to seek connection. We all want to improve our relationships. And by now, we know that improving our empathy is a surefire way to do it.
But why do so many people, despite their desire for connection, still struggle with improving empathy? Primarily because of 2 major social barriers: prejudices and denial.
Below, I’ll go over each of these barriers in turn and provide you with ways to jump over them.
Our minds are often full of prejudices that consequentially make us form irrational assumptions about others and snap judgments based on first impressions. As a result, we put people in a box. Or in other words, we label and stereotype them.
- He’s a jew. Therefore he is greedy.
- She’s a female. Therefore she belongs in the kitchen.
- He’s Mexican. Therefore I can hire him to clean my car for 3$/hour.
- She’s into anime and crappy Japanese pop music. Therefore she’s a nerd – and probably also a virgin.
- He’s a NASCAR fan. Therefore he’s poor and stupid.
Sadly, the way you can stop yourself subjectively labeling and stereotyping others is covered in razor blades. It’s hard, long, and painful and entails extensive self-awareness.
You can initiate the process by admitting that you’re probably wrong about most people you have prejudices about. Then work on seeing things more realistically by challenging your preconceived notions.
Simply ask things like, “Are all black people really the bottom of the societal totem pole, or am I being biased?” Or “is it fair to label this kid a nerd, or am I just making a rash generalization about him?”
After questioning your beliefs for long enough, you’ll begin to develop more open-mindedness. But again, this takes time. So be patient.
I was raised in a fanatically conservative family, where blacks were branded as a disgrace to the human race, and personalities like Donald Trump were praised weekly. And guess what? It took me years to shed those fucked up beliefs.
The lesson? Shut up and be patient.
Like with prejudices, our mind tends to be full of denial – even when it comes to the people we love most.
We might think, “Oh, my partner has been throwing up for the past 3 weeks? It’s probably nothing. I’ll head back to work.” Then 3 days later, you find out that they have some cruel disease.
Here’s another example. You come across a picture of a young boy being raped by a big hairy man in a newspaper. Your response? You shrug your shoulders and turn the page without any empathetic response whatsoever.
Why do we do things like this? Why do we brush-off certain experiences and retreat into a state of denial that diminishes our empathy? There are many reasons for it.
We could be avoiding shame or guilt. We could be avoiding caring about something or someone. We could be avoiding taking on more responsibility – as citizens, as friends, or partners. But most likely, we’re just experiencing empathy fatigue.
Empathy fatigue is a psychological phenomenon where horrid pictures or stories (in some cases even experiences) don’t affect us anymore because we digested or seen such a massive volume of them already. It’s like we’ve become comfortably numb to the hellish things going around the world.
But how do you come out of denial, you might ask?
There’s only one way. First, notice that you’re in denial (self-awareness) and then commit to the exact same treatment as you would when clearing your mind of prejudices.
Ultimately, by committing to all the ways of building empathy as we discussed, you’re naturally going to come across obstacles like denial and prejudices. Relax. It’s all part of the process.
If you keep practicing what I wrote, you’ll eventually overcome any mental obstacle. Think of facing denial and prejudices as the unavoidable pain – like when developing vulnerability – that you just have to endure if you wish to build genuine empathy.
But despite the pain period, building empathy is worth all the suffering. Because the more stronger it becomes, the richer your relationships get – and the richer your relationships get more content you get.