Growing Empathy

It takes knowing yourself… to truly love and know others.

Have you ever been in conversation where someone is telling you about a deep experience of life, and you realize that you’re not ‘tracking’ as deeply as you were or your mind starts scrolling?

There are some experiences where we simply just can’t relate to others because their experience is so other or different to us.  Most of the time, however, when we can’t empathize or extend compassion deeper than sympathy, it’s because we haven’t ventured through hard feelings or the depths ourselves.

It takes deeply empathizing with our own experiences to truly empathize with others.

But why is empathy so important?

It is so easy in this world to feel isolated, to feel as though no one ‘gets you,’ and no one knows what you’re going through.  Isolation can lead to depression, self harm, and suicide in some cases (add a multitude of other symptoms and outcomes).  We live in this funny world now, where some individuals’ only place of truly being known, and therefore potential avenues for consolation or compassion, are via social media or technological interactions--this easily lends itself to not receiving the one-on-one recognition needed to combat isolation and loneliness.  A lot of people out there are experiencing the hardest parts of their lives… the things they’ll remember with that pit-of-stomach feeling for the rest of their lives.  We need to exercise our empathy muscles.

Some people are naturally more empathetic simply due to personality type, life experience, and multitudes of other factors, but we can all commit to growing in empathy. 

Growing empathetic not only involves working the empathy muscle for others but for yourself as well.  Have you ever been in counseling or therapy where you’re processing negative self talk and your guide asks you if you’d speak that way to anyone else?  And you’re like, “Oh heavens no, I’m so kind!”  And your talented and gifted guide then challenges you to only self-talk to yourself the way you speak to others?  Empathy is like that, but flipped.  The more deeply you have compassion, grace, and forgiveness for yourself the more empathetic you can be toward others.

If we have standards of perfectionism, competition, and negativity around ourselves, what keeps our compassion toward others pure and authentic?  Empathy even goes a step beyond compassion to truly being able to feel the emotional weight or impact on behalf of the person experiencing the hurt/pain/suffering.  I challenge that if we do not know our deep hurts and wounds and we have not begun the lifelong process of extending grace, forgiveness, and compassion toward ourselves in those spaces, then we cannot truly and authentically empathize with others. 

Have you heard the axiom: “Hurt people hurt people.”?  Well, it’s true.  In my field we use it to say that those that have not sought healing, forgiveness, grace, and wholeness in their places of deep wounding have the ability and probability to hurt the people close to them or the people they guide out of those deep places of hurt.  Practicing growth in empathy commits to remediating this truism by choosing healing for self and resonance with others. 

Growing in empathy involves diving in:

By using practices like journaling, prayer forms, and meditation, we may become aware of some of the places where we could begin to open the door to healing, forgiveness, and grace for ourselves.  These spaces are often deep places of wounding from family of origin experiences, relationship wounds, or years of small issues with ourselves heaping up on one another.  Pay attention to what you’re sensitive to in conversation and general relationship with others: is there a character flaw or trait in others that drives you MAD, but may be a reflection?  Is there a piece of you that you wish no one would find out about?  Bring it all to light.  Express it in your journal or meditation time and begin opening the door to moving deeper into healing.  Begin the process of forgiving yourself.  Use resources like counseling, spiritual direction, dear friendships, and practices like journaling, prayer, drawing, etc. to help you on your journey.

Growing in empathy involves looking out:

Like developing an academic understanding of something, empathy needs to be researched and learned in a way.  We look outward for this practice.  Listen to stories on podcasts, on the radio, through television or movies of people’s different life experience.  Listen to stories about the tragedy of the human experience, let yourself stop thinking about your own moral code, your opinions, your semantics… let go and let yourself feel for the person.  Practice not casting any sort of judgement, limitations, or comparisons… simply let the stories wash over you and wonder what you’d feel in that circumstance.  Spend some time in that wondering and let yourself experience it for a bit.  Don’t think of answers or solutions to problems, don’t think about how to move forward or where to go… just be in that space. 

Remember, most people you meet have been through things you’d never wish upon anyone… think about that when you’re talking to a cashier, a telephone operator, a customer service agent, etc.  Next time you’re listening to a friend tell stories from their life, let your empathy muscle do its thing.