Empathy is the pinnacle of existence. It’s a full connection to others without attempting to alter their reality or have them change yours. Empathy requires being aware of and present to another’s reality. In order to do this, we must be “cracked open”. We must know ourselves through developing inner awareness. Our souls must lead and our egos shelved.
Empathy, by way of definition, is not sympathy. Sympathy distances us from others. When we sympathize with someone, we feel sorry for them. We’re damn glad we’re not in their suffering shoes. When we sympathize, we try to fix them or tell them what to do. Sympathy makes us feel better. There’s a judgment to sympathy that empathy doesn’t have. Which is why empathy takes a lot more work. Empathy takes being present without a verdict or opinion. It takes slowing down to listen.
One of the most majestic gifts in life is to hear and be heard. That’s the essence of love. Love Thy Neighbor means to accept those around you even when you disagree with them. As history has proven, this is probably one of the hardest acts to perform.
Unlike sympathy, empathy has boundaries to it. We don’t have to take people we would rather not be around into our home just to prove to ourselves – or others – that we’re kind. We don’t need to take on another person’s values or opinions to let them know we’ve heard them. We also don’t have to “fight back” and let them know they’re wrong for not seeing it our way. Then we’re pushing against their boundaries. Slowing down enough to understand doesn’t require loosening our psyches, changing our beliefs or allowing them to hurt us.
One of the hardest things for me to do was to move to a very conservative part of the country. I spent years internally rolling my eyes and judging those who didn’t seem to “get it”. Yet, when I took the time to listen – really listen – without enforcing my more progressive views, I found an interesting thing happening to me. I softened. I still didn’t agree with many people I talked to, but I realized people are going to believe what they want to believe and I found peace in that. After a while, I felt comfortable enough within my own self not to get upset. And miracle or all miracles, when opinions were labeled by us, we actually found some common ground. I learned to like people for who they were, not what they believed in. I learned that I could honor their beliefs and still maintain my own. If I was going to really be the person I saw myself being, I had to accept everyone as they are. I needed to stop judging. I needed to start accepting.
If I drew a linear scale that showed degrees of empathy, the least amount would be to tolerate others, the middle would be to affirm them, the most would be to honor them. Tolerating others is a good place to start. It’s acceptance with an effort not to judge.
Sometimes it’s hardest to apply empathy to family members or close friends. We have expectations of what our family members should do, be, act, or think. We know their foibles and vulnerabilities. The closer we are to someone, the higher our hopes are of them. Certainly the less tolerant we become when they don’t hit that raised bar we’ve imposed.
When we’re not careful, our egoic self sees family as a reflection of us. When we have unresolved issues, unaccomplished dreams, we place them on our children. Even our friends get the brunt of the shadow sides we would rather forget about. When we displace our discomfort onto them as blame we have lost our ability to be present and empathize.
Slowing down to listen to our children without inserting our own views can be our greatest challenge. It can also be our greatest gift to them. They will feel heard and they will learn the act of empathy through your modeling of it.
So, how do we become more empathetic?
Imagine being present for your wife without trying to tell her how to fix the relationship with her angry boss? When you listen to the words and notice her body language, you can develop a deeper connection with her. As you do this, you may see her emotions in a new way. Reflect back to her, “I see you are very hurt by what he said to you today” . Sounds pretty obvious. She might give you a big “duh” response at first, yet you might also see her soften and relax. You just indicated that you heard her. What you’ve just done is honor feelings that she felt have been dismissed by her boss
The second part of this is to also notice your feelings and reactions to seeing your wife upset. What does this bring up for you? An urge to rush to her side and stop the pain? An urge to rush to your man cave? It’s okay to sit in your own discomfort as you make yourself present to her. I promise, your anxiety won’t rupture your spleen. In fact, it may decrease as you stay open and present in the conversation.
What would listening to your child’s hopes and dreams look like without trying to enforce your own expectations onto him or her? How would you be if your husband came home and started to cry? What if, the next time a friend drives you crazy with what you perceive as one of her issues, you ask yourself, “what in them reflects my own unexamined problems?”.
Be present, be patient, be available to listen.