These recent days I have been exploring the words empathy and compassion. In my line of work, it is both a strength and a weakness to have empathy. On the one hand – empathy is what allows me to stand in the shoes of another and truly experience their position – and when I do – that motivates me to do what is needed to support them to sort out their situation. On the other hand – too much empathy can create stress and a tendency of being overbearingly responsible – where I place too much burden on me to sort things out. Another problem is when we define empathy in the sense of taking on the emotions and feelings of another – making our ‘feel’ for the other person energetic. That can cause to make stupid decisions – as action driven by energy usually means that we do something without sufficient consideration.
Thus – there it is a balance and a skill to be empathic – empathic in the sense of feeling for another, yet at the same time keeping distance, and keeping once cool – remembering that I have my own process and they have their own – and at the end of the day – they are responsible for their life. And thus – the point is not to become overwhelmed with feeling bad for another – it is rather to understand them and see where they are at. That allows me to step in and take the direction that is best for all.
I have had difficulty implementing the word empathy because I am by nature introverted. In conversations I tend to keep my focus directed inwardly – and hence it is not easy seeing the small movements that occur in the face and body language of another. And being attentive to those aspects – that is a key in living empathy. If my focus is only on myself then I will miss the signs someone is sending me that indicates to me how they feel – and no energy will be given to actively place myself in their shoes to envision for myself how it would be like for me if I would be them. Thus for me – empathy takes effort – it is not something that naturally occurs within me.
And it is not strange that empathy does not come natural to me – if I look at my education as I grew up – there was very seldom anyone sitting down with me to share the basics of how to live and apply empathy – and in school it was never mentioned. Somehow – parents believe that their children should just understand what it means to be empathic and then proceed to live it. Though – then we miss the fact that empathy is a technique – it is not a characteristic. While the reason as to why we should apply empathy has more to do with our sense of equality – the actual application of standing in the shoes of another is technical – we use our mind to place ourselves in the experience of another. In our current education system we have a serious deficit when it comes to showing kids how to put into practice spiritual techniques that will empower them and their peers. We take it for granted that our children will developed spiritually when they are fed with information about the world and other people – and we somehow believe that everyone will turn out pretty much okay at the end of the day. And that is a mistake which we now have to undo as adults by relearning the basic techniques required to create an effective social environment.
The way I see it – empathy consists of a couple of ingredients, which are the following: 1) Receptivity 2) Sensitivity 3) Imagination. Thus – in order to apply empathy we have to firstly be receptive and take in our environment. We must be open and vulnerable and allow us to see people and events without judgments, preconceived ideas or morality. If we judge what is here, empathy will be difficult to conjure – because through judgment we put ourselves in a state of superiority – on a pedestal – and to access empathy we need to stand as an equal.
Sensitivity has to do with our ability to be in touch with our environment. To put ourselves in the shoes of another we have to be able to notice the details and allow ourselves to feel the moment – and that means we have to let ourselves go. Sensitivity thus is about letting go to fully experience what is here – and not try to rationalize, theorize or observe – it about feeling reality. And if we do not allow ourselves to go there – empathy will only ever be a thought-experiment and not an actual understanding of the experience of another.
Thirdly, imagination. Sometimes empathy can be difficult because we have no reference points. An example would be war and refugees. How can I empathize with refugees and victims of war when I have absolutely no idea how it is to be in such a position? I have grown up in a safe country with constant access to the basic necessities of life – I have been protected. Am I then even able to understand what it is like to have your home blown to pieces, parts of your family killed, and then having to leave your home country for life? The only way for me to come close is to use my imagination – and also to look for similar experiences in my own life. That way I am able to get somewhat of a understanding as to what another has gone or is going through. And applying this step usually takes some time. In order to realistically imagine something – it requires a bit of effort – because what is easy to forget is the details of the experience.
These are the ingredients that I use when I apply empathy in my life – a skill that I am still practicing and that I have had great use of so far both in my personal and professional life. From my perspective – I think that life on earth would improve greatly if more people started practicing and applying empathy in their daily life.
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