What the World Needs Now: 9 Ways to Develop Empathy

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Empathy is part of our humanity, allowing us to organize ourselves into community and create society; we all have the ability to empathize, but to what extent do we use it? There’s the rub.

Empathy is the feeling and experience that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else’s feelings, even if they are far removed from your own.

Empathy in business and communication has recently become a new buzzword; one can readily find people teaching techniques to increase one’s ability to use empathy for one’s self and others. (Not surprisingly, they have found a way of monetizing it.) I’ve been doing some research on this and my personal reaction has been, “What the fuck, you mean people don’t already know how to do this!?” Apparently not.

I have always been afflicted with this ability (and you’ll see why I ruefully use that term later on), so it has been hard for me to realize that it is not as pervasive as I have assumed. How easy it is to simply assume that everyone else holds an ability that you find natural?

One evening, when I was just out of college and pursuing my plan of being a famous comedian, I had an extreme experience of empathy that taught me a lot. I was living in a rented room at a friend’s house, broke, in the midst of a college town in Syracuse New York. Barely surviving, head full of dreams; I took a walk one balmy evening down a quiet street of lovely turn-of-the-century homes that knew generations of families long forgotten, now used for frats and college life, and some few families still raising their children as their immigrant elders did. It was dusk, just that time when the lights from within each house illuminated the rooms inside, allowing you that accidental glimpse of the lives they harbored.

I loved looking inside as I passed. Like a wind-blown skirt exposing a hidden thigh, I couldn’t help but look. I loved environments and what they revealed of the lives that created them. As each one passed, I’d step further outside of myself and into those rooms; the pictures on the walls, the keepsakes on the mantles, the arrangement of furniture, the mislaid clothing, all drew me into the feeling that they were my home. This favorite chair was mine, that picture full of my memories; before long I could see a half-open bathroom door and know that behind it was a bathrobe, a belt hanging, and a cap on the hook behind it, out of my view but known to me. I felt the people who lived there as if they were I; all of the joys, the troubles, the love, back through time, were mine, were me.

I was overtaken that evening by a genuinely indescribable feeling, uncoveyable—but I will try. Each of these houses were like illuminated books on the self of a great library; rows of cardboard comfort, and I knew all of the lives, all of it, and I made the singular realization that, “everything was alright.” Not only that, but everything had always been alright, and everything always would be. All at once, the light of every hearth was made known to me; I stopped, doubled over, my knees weak, my breathing difficult and halting, my vision blurred and my head (and heart) felt like it was about to explode. The best way to describe it is that it was the exact polar opposite of an anxiety attack. I almost fell to me knees but managed to stay standing. When it subsided, I thought, “I am standing in ‘town center’ of college coed angst, depression, and uncertainty, and here I am blissing-out over interior decor—what a weirdo.” Such is the power of empathy.

All of us have the ability to empathize, but some of us are what they call an empath. (Also known as clairsentient.) It took me a long, long time to recognize and deal with this. There are people who can teach you how to cope with this, but most empaths have to figure it out for themselves. I am not a true empath; I have some annoyingly pronounced empathic tendencies. There are really very few empaths around—only a tiny percentage of the population.

empath 2.jpgEmpaths can have a difficult time in life if they don’t recognize themselves as such and understand it. They must learn how to work with their clairsentient ability without getting overwhelmed, and need to accept that they have a more sensitive nervous system and that this has implications for how they lead their life.

Here are the traits of an Empath: See if any of these sound familiar to you. If they do, I recommend researching how to control the skill:

  • Random mood swings even though you have no idea why. You search for possible reasons why you may be feeling the way you do and attach labels that don’t really fit. (You don’t realize that they are not your emotions; you are feeling the emotions of others.)
  • In crowds, your emotions run high and change often–you get anxiety-ridden, panicky, frustrated, angry. You may want to be in a large crowd, but every time you do, you end up feeling tired (and it’s because you emotionally run a marathon of different emotions).  You can even feel physically ill or have intense headaches.
  • People seek you out to confide in you.
  • People like being around you, but every time they are, they end up talking about their problems/issues and yet, your problems/issues are rarely spoken of, if at all.
  • You have a need to make everyone feel better/feel happier and take steps to make it happen.
  • You somehow just “know” what people need to hear in order to feel better about themselves.
  • You have difficulty expressing your own emotions and much prefer to focus on someone else.
  • You often ignore people’s bad treatment of you–explaining it away because they need you, and on some level, that’s enough for you.
  • You are the natural healer, helper & you always sacrifice for others. You NEED to help people. (This is because their need and pain feels like your own.)
  • You are a magnet/receptacle for negative energy. Not because you started out feeling negative, but because others need a place to put their negative energy (and there you were, ready to receive it!).
  • You don’t like feeling bad/down/negative/sad, but you feel resigned & believe it to be part of your lot in life.
  • You are the natural animal lover! You love animals–they make you feel happy and a love that feels like pure innocence.
  • You are a “nature baby.” Being in the country, by the water, at the beach, a good rainstorm, etc.–anything to do with nature brings you a sense of peace that you just crave.
  • Those you love feel physically connected to you, even when miles apart. You can suddenly feel strong shifts in emotions; good or bad that you know are theirs.
  • You can sometimes see emotions in the form of colors or auras.
  • You struggle with setting boundaries because the disappointment, anger and grief (and other emotions) of other people impacts you deeply. It seems that, no matter what you do, it’s always lose-lose for you. Either you stand up for yourself, and get overwhelmed by the negative reactions of others, or you do what they want and don’t feel good about yourself.
  • Your body often feels icky, murky, dark and unpleasant, even if you have no medical condition to attribute those feelings to. For that reason, you like to do things that take your attention away from being physically aware of how your body feels.

These traits do not make an empath, rather empaths generally exhibit some or all of these traits. If you recognize some of these, you may have a strong empathetic tendency or nature.empathy 3

People who are naturally and consistently empathetic can easily forge positive connections with others. They are people who use empathy to engender trust and build bonds; they are catalysts that are able to create positive communities for the greater good. These are the people who inspire others; people tend to refer to them as “a light”, “an inspiration”, “a gift”. They tend to bring people together and bring out the best in people, without really trying. But even if empathy does not come naturally to some of us, we can develop this capacity.

If you don’t recognize many of the above traits, here is how you can increase your ability to empathize with others.

  1. Listen – truly listen to people. Listen with your ears, eyes and heart. Pay attention to others’ body language, to their tone of voice, to the hidden emotions behind what they are saying to you, and to the context.
  2. Don’t interrupt people. Don’t dismiss their concerns offhand. Don’t rush to give advice. Don’t change the subject. Allow people their moment.
  3. Tune in to non-verbal communication. This is the way that people often communicate what they think or feel, even when their verbal communication says something quite different.
  4. Practice the “93 percent rule”. We know from a famous study by Professor Emeritus, Albert Mehrabian of UCLA, when communicating about feelings and attitudes, words – the things we say – account for only 7 percent of the total message that people receive. The other 93 percent of the message that we communicate when we speak is contained in our tone of voice and body language.
  5. Be fully present when you are with people. Don’t think of your response while listening to them. Don’t check your email, look at your phone or take phone calls. Put yourself in their shoes; listen as if it is you who is speaking.
  6. Smile at people.
  7. Encourage people, particularly the quiet ones, when they speak up. A simple thing like an attentive nod can let them know you understand them.
  8. Give genuine recognition and praise. Pay attention to what people are doing and catch them doing the right things. When you give praise, spend a little effort to make your genuine words memorable: “This was pure genius”; “I would have missed this if you hadn’t picked it up.”
  9. Take a personal interest in people. Show people that you care, and have genuine curiosity about their lives. Ask them questions and so understand their challenges, their families, and their aspirations.

The bonds that connect empaths to others are not mere metaphors; they have power, they are actual, visceral, energetic bonds. These connections have real physical/emotional consequence, and can be confusing and problematic for the unwary Emp. Though few have this ability (or affliction, as I jibed earlier), all of us can learn the positive aspects of empathy and use it to make a better society and a better world.

If we can all learn to step outside our own perceptions, beliefs, attachments and behaviors, and seep into those of another, even if we do not agree, and can see, if only for a moment, the world through their eyes and in a compassionate light, we can understand them—and through understanding comes harmony.

Empathetic people are precious and important. Be one.

When we look at the news today, and witness the hatred, intolerance, violence and unconscionable lack of compassion in the world, it is easy to hear the words of that famous 1960’s song sung by Dionne Warwick, “What the world needs now, is love sweet love…”

We can always use more love in the world, but what we really need now is EMPATHY.

“It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of…”

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Helping Hands: 9 Ways Helping Others is Not Good.

helping hands4 (1)In Catholic school first grade, they taught us about sin.

Sister Mary Somethingorother drew a picture of a soul on the chalkboard that looked just like the outline of a t-shirt. Then she made little specks, like stains on a shirt, and called them Venial Sins; these were little sins like lying or picking on your little brother. These, she said, God would forgive if we did our penance for it. Then she turned the chalk on its side and made a big blob and told us this was a Mortal Sin, like killing someone (or spilling a bowl of soup on your shirt–presumably); these, she said, God would never forgive and he (always “he”) would send us to Hell where we would burn in fire and agony for all of eternity with no hope of ever getting out.

Not meaning to be cheeky, but nonetheless compelled, I asked her, “Why is it that God asks us to forgive others no matter what, but he never forgives people who do mortal sins?” She looked at me crossly and said, “Because you are not God, Master Izzo.” I think that was the moment that Catholicism fell apart for me. (I’m not a dogma kind of guy, though I respect those who are.)  I did, however, become more careful when eating soup.

With five other siblings, my mother gave us baths in groups of three until we were too old for that sort of thing. Being a middle kid, I always got the shallow end; it was a big deal for me when I finally got to take a bath alone. I loved baths. The tub became an entire universe all my own, a place to think and imagine. I would keep adding hot water as it got tepid, keeping it as hot as I could stand it. Sometimes I’d overdo it, get dizzy, and experience an excruciating thirst. I would run the cold water in a tiny stream and put my mouth under the faucet, letting the cold-water trickle down my throat—it was true bliss! Really, there’s nothing like it. If you’ve ever stayed too long in a hot tub and reached for an ice-cold beer, you know what I mean!

As I did this, I would think about the souls in Hell, of what it must be like to be burning alive and to have that agony for all of eternity. Trying to imagine what eternity would be like, and burning for that long would blow my little catholic boy mind. I mean, would you get used to burning after a few centuries? Would they make it so that you couldn’t ever get used to it? How could anyone ever do something bad enough to deserve that? I thought that they must be very, very thirsty.

So as the cold water trickled down, I would ask God to send my cold drink to one of the souls in Hell. I would say, “I know that I am enjoying this—and oh man is it good—but I’m asking you please to send this feeling to just one (or maybe two?) of those burning people in Hell.” I did this at every bath for some time.

My saintly reverie would eventually be interrupted when my mother walked down the hall and banged on the door, realizing I was still in the tub.

(Bang-bang-bang!) “Gary! Are you still in there!? Come out of there before you turn into a prune! What are you doing in there so long?? “

(Defying your God and sending a cold drink to those poor bastards he locked away in Hell.) “Nothin’.”

I never asked anything from those anonymous souls, or from God or anyone else for my help–I just wanted to do it. I thought that God wouldn’t be too happy about my request seeing as how he sent them there in the first place, and that I would probably have to pay for it somewhere down the line, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to help.

I have a strong resonance with “lost souls”, always have; not sure why. I’m not saying that their damned, but I think maybe that’s the connection, literally—like a cord. I found that if you put enough lost souls in one place, they’re not lost anymore. You get a kind of Neverland.

I’ve also found that having a helpful nature isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, at least not for the unwary.

I get to help a lot of people in my work in the theatre, I guess that’s one of the reasons I chose it. I’m no Mother Teresa, but I’ve done well; I’ve saved careers, relationships, probably even lives. I’ve also lost a great many precious things for myself by helping in the wrong way.

Nobody likes needing help; nobody likes asking for help. I definitely include myself in this.  We all like to imagine that where we have come, and who we have become, is the sole result of our own work and effort. We work hard, that should be enough, right? True, everything we are is the result of our work—no one can do that work for us. But who grants us the opportunity to do the work, the tools to work, how to work those tools, guidance on which direction to work to meet our own self-appointed outcomes? The reality is that none of us gets anywhere without allies, those around us that for some reason unknown to us, or perhaps even to themselves, are compelled to help us out.

Accepting help can be dangerous. Manipulation often disguises itself as aid and support from those who seek to take advantage of us. And worse, this isn’t always done with malicious intent. Some people engage in helping others in order to prove their worth to themselves without ever realizing it, and this can also be unhealthy.

I’ve been a White Knight, a Rescuer, and a Fixer; the hell they have wrought in my life cured me of these things long ago. I have nothing to prove anymore, and I am well convinced of my worth.

Why did helping certain people cost me so dearly?

I remember many times determining to help someone, knowing that they needed help; knowing I had the ability and power to help them, knowing that their particular outcome didn’t matter to me, that it was their outcome, their choice not mine; knowing I would have to challenge them harshly; knowing it would be difficult for them, knowing that I would never really matter to them, even knowing I would be resented for it, and realizing that I would forfeit any connection I would have to what I saw as a beautiful human being. I would hear the voice in my head asking me:

“Are you really willing to give this person up, just to help them?”

I would answer in what I thought was a pure expression of love, “Yes. Yes I am. Let’s go.”

Thus, I would throw myself on a bed of swords for someone I hardly knew, but valued highly, then wonder how doing good for another should leave me feeling so empty. I would do this over and over again, realizing each time that it earned me only their resentment, and a subtle, uncomfortable sense of their feeling indebted to me, neither of which I sought. How could I even be sure that they wouldn’t have gotten there without my help? Was it even worth it? Who am I to assume I can make a difference? I’m not God; I’m just a kid in a bathtub.

The vessel I used to hold these awful things, things I once believed to be the necessary residue of selfless, unconditional kindness, is finally full. I’ve had enough. I’ve lost too much that is precious to me. This isn’t noble; it isn’t kind; it is a fruitless act of compassion–like catching tears in the rain. I’m not sure what to do with this giant cup of resentment guck now that it’s full–though it might make a nice fertilizer for the garden.

It had to be full, of course, before I could hear the answer to my question. Why does helping cost me so much? It came not long ago, at great cost, in six simple, honest words: “I never asked for your help.”

helping-handThe realization was swift and painful. I had never heard that before, and I never stopped to consider how demeaning it is to help someone in need without his or her permission. Our quests, our struggles, and our challenges are not just obstacles, they are also gifts. Although we may never navigate them all without allies, and the love and support of others, there are some that we need to overcome ourselves. They are for us alone to rise to, and help unasked for only takes from us the lessons they carry.

I want to ask forgiveness from everyone I ever helped without their permission, and in so doing disrespected them, and made them feel inadequate by robbing them of their right to struggle and suffer. I am sorry. I never meant any harm.

I am creating some new paths for myself as a result of this great insight that I no doubt should have realized years ago. I have a new set of rules for helping others. They’re not standard fare, but please consider them carefully, before you dismiss any of them.

  1. Never help a person who does not truly want help. (If they don’t want to obtain a new outcome, then no matter how much you help, it won’t make any difference anyway.)
  2. Never help a person unless they ask for help (If they can’t ask for help, it means they have a lesson they need to learn, don’t take that from them.)
  3. Never offer help without their offering something in return. (Their offer needn’t be much at all. It is the offering that is important. I’m not speaking of charity here so don’t misunderstand. Their offer is not for you the helper’s sake, but for theirs. )
  4. Stop helping if another does not at least offer you gratitude. (Gratitude should not be the reason you help, but not showing gratitude is your clue that they are not asking for your help.)
  5. Never help a person who only wants help and not a new outcome. (Some people are addicted to Need, they are black holes that will consume your soul, stay away from them!)
  6. Never help too much. (Always putting others first teaches them that you come second.)
  7. Remember that a person’s potential is not who they are now. (See the best in a person, but don’t assume they can give that to you.)
  8. Never help without permission.
  9. Stop catching tears in the rain.

My daughter loves baths too. We used to have many long, crazy bath-time adventures together. It’s sad to think she is getting too old for that. I would have to add hot water several times on the longer ones. Her idea of hot is nothing like mine, but she would occasionally get overheated and very thirsty. She had a plastic measuring cup that somehow became a bath toy, and would thrust it at me and ask,

“Daddy, could you get me some cold, cold, cold, cold water in this, I am dying of thirst!”

I would rinse it in the sink and let the cold water run a while to fill it. Her eyes would roll back in her head as she drank it down.

“”Aaahaaaa… Oh my gosh that feels good!”

“I know… isn’t that great?”

“You know what daddy? If someone was dying of thirst in the desert, I would give them this.”

“I know you would sweat pea.” Then she would ask,

“Daddy, can I have some more?”

And I knew exactly what she was thinking.

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