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Increasing Empathy

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

Last Friday night I was waxing a wee bit existential and reading a book called: The Book of The World: A Contemporary Scripture. It is a weird and wild book, comprised entirely of quotes with an unknown author/origin. It was suitable for a stormy night, and as I read page after page of hashed together quotes I wrote in a margin: "everyone you meet is a version of yourself you didn't know existed." Because I was waxing existential, I thought I'd stumbled upon a bit of rare profundity, but the next morning I was saddened by the simplicity of my revelation.

Everyone you meet is a version of yourself you didn't know existed.

Doesn't that just make you want to be kinder?

What I think I was thinking was this: it's not that un-understandable how humans behave. People have done some pretty fucked up shit, like the Golden State Killer or any number of sundry, vaguely famous murderers. Name a disturbing, heinous thing, and chances are, someone somewhere has done that thing. I'm not condoning crime, I'm simply saying that criminals are still people. They are mostly like you and me, they might just be a bit unhinged. Or, they may have experienced trauma themselves and instead of healing said trauma, passed it on to their kids. Or, they make have been born and raised in a crime-ridden neighborhood or dangerous home and thus, not know any different.

Nobody is how they are for no reason, and modern day, civilized humans aren't that far removed from our "ancient" and animalistic predecessors (roughly 6,000 years removed which is not much in the timeline of the universe). And maybe, you've felt an inclination to murder your husband or at the very least harm him in some way, but you don't because you know better. If you've felt this, or felt any inclination that might be deemed "unacceptable" then you can see how someone else could follow through on something heinous. Anyway, this wasn't meant to be a diatribe defending criminals.

Empathy can help us understand human nature, yes, and maybe even criminal behavior. Empathy, I think, also makes us more interesting and nuanced people. The most interesting people I know are those with many experiences, who have had to overcome great odds or transform their life in some way. If life is a web, these people have the most intricate and wide webs. They can relate to a lot of life experiences because they have endured a lot of pain. I reasoned that pain and empathy are directly related. Turns out, I wasn't the first person to draw this connection.

Jack Shafer, PhD writes, "Empathy is not possible unless we share the same or similar experiences as other people do. We cannot understand hurt until we hurt. We cannot understand disappointment until we are disappointed. We cannot understand sorrow until we feel sorrow... The accumulation of our personal experiences becomes the standard against which we judge other people’s behaviors and emotions...Unfortunately, in order to develop true empathy, we must suffer the same pain and hardship as do the people we empathize with. The older we get the more empathic we become because we have amassed a long list of pain, hardships, and disappointments."

The smaller your web of experiences, so to speak, the less empathy you may be capable of. The less hardship you experience, the less able you are to empathize with others who have experienced hardship. Even something so seemingly minor as reading about those who have suffered or overcome pain can help increase your awareness of suffering, which hopefully expands your ability to empathize.

Everyone you meet is a version of yourself you didn't know existed.

Doesn't that just make you want to be kinder?

Sometimes, having high levels of empathy can seem like a detriment. It can be not only emotionally but physically exhausting, and can sometimes cause individuals to neglect their own needs. I had to learn, for example, not to take criticism personally and to take only constructive criticism from only people I trust. I had to learn that, it didn't come naturally. I also had to learn to establish boundaries so that I wasn't always emotionally exhausted by the needs and/or problems of others.

Empathy has more upsides than downsides, however. I think it helps me write well because I can imagine and understand how people might think and feel. It makes writing real feelings not so hard. Finally, highly empathetic people build and maintain better relationships. There are so many positive outcomes to developing empathy, but here are just a few:

1. Empathy increases emotional regulation: Emotional regulation is important in that it allows you to manage what you are feeling, even in times of great stress, without becoming overwhelmed. Empathizing with others can help you learn to regulate your own emotions.

2. Empathy decreases burn-out: Researchers found that those with high levels of empathy were more likely to handle difficult work situations with grace, communicate well with others, understand others, and feel better understood.

3. Empathy increases prosocial behavior: We as human beings are all wired to need close, meaningful relationships, and we're all born with some degree of empathy because we need other people. The better we can hone our compassion for others, the stronger our social skills and ability to connect with others can become. Many sociologists have theorized that empathy is one of the greatest keys to the survival of our species because it helps us feel safe and progress as a society, together.

4. Empathy guides our moral compass: "Treat others how you want to be treated" is an old adage but one that bears repeating. Empathy helps us identify what we consider to be acceptable behavior. When we create rules that make us safe, protect us from threats, and take care of those less fortunate, we are using empathy to guide those codes. In short, an empathetic society benefits everyone and although it is not always a reality, the closer we can all come to increasing our empathy, the better off we'll all be.

Everyone you meet is a version of yourself you didn't know existed.

Doesn't that just make you want to be kinder?


Sarah Rose

P.S. I'm currently listening to Barack Obama's book, Promised Land. You can tell from his story that he was a highly empathetic and caring person, I highly recommend this read (it's long). Read up on how to be more empathetic here, and read about the three types of empathy here.

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