How I Got Schooled In The Art Of Empathy
As I was dating my now wife, Jenna, I had to learn really quickly about empathy. Sympathy was not enough. As she dove deep into sadness and lept high into joyfulness, there was something that always felt off if I didn’t try to see where she was coming from.
Being attuned to someone’s feelings wasn't instinctual for me. My upbringing shaped me to be independent, introverted, and detached from uncontrollable situations. Jenna was unpredictable, introducing me to emotional depths I had never imagined, and it was both startling and captivating.
I didn’t realize people wanted a friend in sadness. I didn’t know it was okay to sit in sadness. I also didn’t really know if it was okay to be happy. Feelings in general were a bit uncomfortable for me. Meeting Jenna, she was a force of feelings. When she had joy she was illuminated with a golden yellow glow. She brought real sunshine into every room with her and it radiated there after she left.
What a unique young woman, I thought.
Our 4 years of dating also brought with it an intense 4 years of extra-curricular education in the art of empathy. A word I only thought was a different way to say sympathy. Which.. it really all made me confused and a bit uncomfortable. But.. the one thing that was never confusing was how much I loved this girl.
Empathy 101: Listening, Not Fixing.
This was and still is a huge hurdle. I believed “bad” feelings must be fixed. Quickly. You’re sad? Let’s figure out how to not be anymore. You’re anxious? Let’s talk about how you shouldn’t be.
That thought process was hard to break - and it still takes a breath before I’m in listening mode rather than “fixing mode”.
Listening is key. I do this for a living. I’ve interviewed hundreds of people on and off camera for over a decade and you’d think it would come naturally that I shut my mouth and listen before interjecting with my own words. The key to changing this mindset was taking a breath and focusing on the reality that this woman in front of me, sharing her feelings and innermost thoughts is a high privilege not to be taken lightly. Similar to how I prioritize comfort and respect for those I interview, if this young woman trusts me and she feels safe with me, it’s an honor.
While it's tempting to correct Jenna when she's upset over a misconception, it's also key to recognize that emotions are layered and intricate. There are times when comprehension doesn't equate to a solution, and that's perfectly acceptable.
Sometimes this comes naturally in life. It didn’t for me. It takes humility and patience. You know…Virtues. It’s convenient that I rarely have to interact with interviewees once my work is done. So I can manage Empathy 101 for a few hours with those I hardly know. But my girlfriend, my eventual wife, this relationship would require me to grow up.
Empathy 102: Feeling With Others
Empathy is a strong tool when it comes to caring for, relating to, and building up lasting relationships. It’s quite a necessary tool for loving those around you. Can I level myself to my loved ones to feel alongside them? I’ve been working on it. Can I cry with them? .. I actually haven't been able to do this yet. Movies are pretty good at this though, perhaps if I had a soundtrack I could get a couple tears going.
Psychologists often differentiate between 'affective empathy' (feeling someone's emotions) and 'cognitive empathy' (understanding someone's emotions). While my instinct was always to understand or 'fix'—a form of cognitive empathy—Jenna taught me the importance of simply feeling alongside her, tapping into affective empathy."
Feeling alongside those who are in a time for celebration and jumping with joy alongside them, believing justice must be served for those treated unfairly, and holding those close who mourn. What a beautiful ability we have as humans to support the people to our left and right in the ways they long for. But empathy is so strong a tool that it requires caution, too.
Empathy 103: Working With Power Tools
My dad is pretty handy with power tools, he just finished building an outdoor kitchen with his own hands. He was pretty nervous about certain elements of the kitchen and the precision it would take to bring his vision to life. It took measuring and intricate planning, several mistakes, and a lot of time. When you work with power tools it takes a special level of planning, caution, and patience. Measure twice, cut once? I measure 4 times and still make the wrong cut. He says. But I always see his work come out beautifully.
With this unique ability we have to affect those to our right and left through practicing empathy, we should know it’s also not something you should mess with. And just like we wouldn’t use a saw to hammer a nail, we shouldn’t treat every situation with the same level of empathy.
Empathy 201: Fixing, Then Listening
I was surprised to make it this far. If you didn’t already know, I dropped out of college and really didn’t pay too much attention in high school, so making it to this class is honestly a miracle for me.
I’ve learned that empathy, if misused, can be detrimental. Sometimes, a situation demands immediate action over emotional validation.
Bringing a thermometer to a fire will only lead to me getting burned and the flames intensifying. Immediate action is necessary to put the fire out. Doesn’t matter how hot it is. Similarly, if someone celebrates without seeing the potential fallout, it's essential to guide them back to reality.
Empathy 202: Responsible Empathy
In our relationship, Jenna and I seek to have a custom response for each intense emotion the other person may want to share, positive or negative. Is this a time to listen, or do you want me to share what I think? Do you just need a hug or are you looking for immediate solutions? These have been necessary questions we’ve asked each other in emotional situations. These are examples of us trying to practice caution with strong tools.
In the intricate dance of empathy, understanding others' emotions can sometimes blur the lines of our boundaries. When empathy is treated purely as a disposition, rather than a conscious choice, it may inadvertently become an open door for manipulation. Just as I learned the nuances between sympathy and empathy through my journey with Jenna, it's vital to discern genuine emotional sharing from attempts to exploit our empathetic nature. Staying attuned not only to others' feelings but also to our own instincts and boundaries ensures that our empathy remains an intentional gift we can offer.
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