This Middle-Aged Guy Tried to Practice Empathy. You'll Never Believe What Happened Next! Ten Things I've Learned by Practicing Empathy
Forgive the click-bait title. This post is so zen that I figured I needed to balance it out with a bit of drama. Roughly a year ago, maybe a little longer, I decided to start really practicing empathy. By that I mean that I felt I was not sufficiently empathetic and literally needed to practice.
This hit me one day when I was reading a political Facebook post that infuriated me. I typed an angry reply. Before posting it, I deleted it--which was good--but I felt a nagging unease. This person was not a bad person. In fact, it was a good person—flawed, like all of us, but fundamentally good. How could I so quickly dismiss this perspective, then?
Based on that experience, I set a rule for myself: I was not allowed to disagree with anything I read on Facebook (even if I didn’t actually post my disagreement) until I had tried to understand why the person thought or felt that way. My rule of thumb was that I had to spend at least as long trying to see the issue from the author's point of view as I would have spent crafting a rebuttal. I’m not 100% with this. There are times I still get really annoyed and angry at things I read. Still, I’ve made progress.
In addition to my rule, I have this simple thought experiment I do. I take whatever the situation is and ask how I'd feel if this situation involved my faith or men or white people or whatever. It's amazing how quickly I am able to see things from a human level, understanding at least a little the emotions involved. It's what Atticus Finch talked about, trying to get inside another person a bit.
This experiment absolutely changed me. Some of the ways it changed me are more personal than I want to share, but there are some general things I've learned. Perhaps I’m unique in that I was not sufficiently empathetic. Maybe everyone else is already super-empathetic. Maybe. But I don’t think so, at least based on what I see.
Before I go any farther let me just clarify that I’m not there yet. I am more empathetic than I was, but I’m not finished and don’t mean to present myself as if I’ve achieved this state. Still, I’ve learned some things on the journey and that’s what I want to talk about. Here, in no specific order, are some of the things I’ve learned.
1. Empathy is hard but can be learned
Humans seem to crave almost unqualified empathy for ourselves. In that sense it seems natural. At the same time, our ability or willingness to extend empathy seems inversely related to our desire for it. In that sense it seems completely unnatural.
I have come to believe that empathy is a natural gift for some people, but that it is a set of behaviors, actions, and beliefs that anyone can practice. Practice makes it a habit.
While I don’t consider myself anywhere as empathetic as I want to be, I am more empathetic than I used to be. Some responses that used to take effort are now habitual, if not quite instinctive. I’m encouraged by this. However, I have to say that trying to be empathetic made me aware of just how unempathetic I was. Sort of the same principle that you don’t realize how much sugar you eat until you try to stop eating it.
2. A lot of people who talk about being empathetic are not empathetic.
I have come to believe that, sadly, empathy is given a lot of lip service, but that it's usually a club used to pound ideological foes. Some of the people who call loudest for empathy are supremely unempathetic to anyone who disagrees with them.
Empathy is really an all-or-nothing proposition. You can’t be empathetic with people you like or agree with, then turn it off for people you don’t like or find ideologically un-simpatico. I think that is what most people do. It’s certainly what I found myself habituated to doing. That's very human, very normal, but that’s not empathy.
3. Empathy has nothing to do with agreement.
I have noticed that even people who technically understand the definition of the word are strangely unsettled by the thought of showing empathy for those with whom they disagree. It is as if we have the idea that somehow empathy is weakness, or that showing any sort of understanding for the thoughts and feelings of those we disagree with will pollute us somehow.
I have absolutely no proof of this, but I have a hunch that as we have become more and more ideologically charged, and as more and more issues have become more and more divisive, empathy is much less favorably looked upon than it once was (although, again, we pay it lip service—largely when we want others to understand us).
I have really had to stretch to be empathetic to some people and some perspectives. There are ideas and people who irritate, annoy, and offend me. There are some ideas I think are totally misguided, even dangerous. I haven’t necessarily changed my mind about these things. Empathy has not necessarily made me agree with everyone. In fact, something interesting happened. Empathy has burned away some of my less-informed opinions or beliefs. There are things I believed that were based largely on my own experience, or where I was born, or who I was with, or that sort of thing—fairly superficial beliefs. A lot of these have been burned away.
However, empathy has helped me find my real core values. The beliefs, opinions, and convictions I still hold are stronger than ever, durable and much deeper.
But even where I disagree—emphatically—empathy has helped me understand the other side. It is possible to be empathetic and still strongly opposed to something. It is very difficult, though, to be empathetic and simultaneously fear or be angry with someone. Thus, opposition is much less personal.
4. Empathy is complicated
This leads me to the next point. Receiving others empathetically makes the world very complicated. When you are trying to understand why people think and feel things the way they do, you suddenly find a lot of common ground for understanding, if not agreement. Empathy breaks down a lot of comfortable, pre-existing boundaries and stereotypes. There are cultural issues which I still feel one way about, but having really listened to someone who disagrees, I see why they feel the way they do. It requires me to think in different terms than us vs. them. So much of our current discourse in this country is founded on us vs. them, far more than I realized.
I used to see political parties, figures, and organizations as good vs. bad, us vs. them, heroes vs. villains. Practicing empathy has changed that. I now see people: humans, filled with a swirling maelstrom of hopes and fears, dreams and nightmares, aspirations, strengths, weaknesses, and lots of contradiction.
Empathy is nearly fatal to dogma, platitudes, easy answers, and simplistic ways of looking at the world. In that way, it can be frightening and disorienting. I can no longer simply dismiss ideas or perspectives I don’t like. I now see I used to do a lot more of that than I’d like to admit, even as I thought I was fairly open-minded and rational. Ironically, in trying to be more empathetic, which is feeling-based, I find I am much more open-minded, which is rational and logical.
5. Empathy reduces fear and anger
I have come to the conclusion that our current political and cultural debates in the U.S. are principally driven by fear and anger. We try to hide that, and there are some principled exceptions, but a tremendous amount of what we do and advocate for is driven by what we fear.
Working for empathy changes this. Understanding the fundamental human feelings that inform people’s opinions and proclivities makes it difficult to be afraid of them.
6. Empathy makes it boring to judge
I used to get angry at what I thought was hypocrisy. I still do, but my definition of hypocrisy has changed. I am prone to be much more charitable and to give the benefit of the doubt more often. What I used to see as hypocrisy, I now frequently see as human weakness, the natural result of a flawed being aspiring to something greater. There will always be a mismatch when people try to be better than they currently are.
I don’t judge people nearly as much. I’m not saying I’m perfect at this, but I’m much more able to give people credit for what they are trying to do and am less worried about their lapses. I find I am much less interested in trying to evaluate people. To go back to the sugar analogy, after you have been off of it for a while, you stop craving it. I believe empathy is similar. I don’t pretend that I’m somehow virtuous for not being as quick to judge. It’s just that it's increasingly uninteresting. I just don’t crave it the way I used to.
7. Empathy is simply understanding the human emotion that motivate action and belief
Empathy can be difficult to practice consistently, but it’s not complicated. It is simply the act of saying, “I understand why she feels that way.” Or “I can see why he thinks that.” I have seen over and over that so many of our loudest, most controversial disagreements are based on the same human emotions.
8. Empathy enhances clear thinking
It's been recently documented that, while we like to pretend otherwise, humans are profoundly irrational. We usually come up with the opinion, generally based on some value or emotion, then backtrack to justify it. We do what we want, or what we believe is right, then try to create a rational framework.
I mentioned this above, but empathy allows clearer, more rational thinking. This really surprised me, but it makes sense. Empathy allows us not to have a dog in the fight, or at least not as much. It de-claws fear and anger. In this regard, it really does allow for less-muddled thinking. I feel I am much more open to evidence and more persuadable on any number of things than I used to be. This goes, I think, back to the fact that so much of our discourse these days is based on fear, anger, and us vs. them thinking. Again, I am intrigued by the fact that this fundamentally emotional mindset has made me more rational. That's an interesting paradox.
9. Sometimes empathy is most difficult with small differences
Ironically, some of the people who still anger or annoy me the most are people who share common values and ideas with me. We have many overlapping beliefs or opinions, only differing in relatively small places. For some reason, it is harder to consistently be empathetic with these people than it is with people with whom I differ greatly on big issues. I don't know if this is some weird quirk of my own or if it's human nature. I'm still trying to understand it. I have a theory, but need to think more about it.
10. Empathy is a gift to myself
I feel that I am much healthier, much more at peace with myself and with others than I used to be. I didn’t expect that. To the extent I thought about it at all, I think I probably thought that being empathetic was a gift I could give other people. I have come to discover it is an enormous gift to myself.
I am calmer and more tranquil. I feel I am much less susceptible to sky-is-falling sorts of alarmism, much less susceptible to fear-based political appeals and less-prone to be afraid of people. That’s not say I’ve become Pollyanna. One of the things that is most surprising to me is that I feel much more clear-eyed. I’m not unaware of threats or dangers or real problems. In fact, I feel simultaneous more aware of these things, but less prone to brooding, fear, and catastrophizing.
As I said, I don’t pretend that I’m done with this project. I’m not. In fact, I’ve realized just how hard it is to be consistently empathetic. Consistent effort has pointed to how very far from the ideal I am.
It has also helped me see that it is worth pursuing. I believe it’s the right thing to do. I also find it has tremendous personal benefits.
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