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.
Empaths 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Smile at people.
- Encourage people, particularly the quiet ones, when they speak up. A simple thing like an attentive nod can let them know you understand them.
- 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.”
- 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…”