The Starting Point for Empathy is You

In a series of articles,  we’ve explored some reasons to consciously act on developing our empathic skills.  We cannot expect to extend our empathy to others in the fullest sense unless we are capable of giving it to ourselves first.

The reality is that we are often as hard on ourselves as we are on others.  We’ve often joked that if we sat next to ourselves at a restaurant and overheard our own internal “self-talk”  we’d be offended enough to get up and leave the table!   We can be very tough internal judges, self-critics and task-masters.  So the practice of empathy has to begin with how we treat ourselves!
The critical question is: Can you extend yourself the caring, kindness and understanding that are the hallmarks of empathic behavior?

The correlation between our inner and outer judge is strong.  The measures and standards we use towards others often apply first to ourselves. So the place we begin to look first – is always within.

Once we decide to act more empathetically in the world, it’s also important to look within to explore these powerful factors:

  • Your Self-Talk.  How do you talk to yourself? What do you say and how do you say it? When you “fall short” of your own expectations, how do you treat yourself? Unquestionably, the quality of our self-talk is connected to our ability to empathize with others.
  • Your Beliefs. This is a biggie. Your beliefs about everything filter your perspective, shape your feelings and show up as your behavior. So if you believe that so and so is a lazy slacker, you will be far less able to express any empathy towards him or her – even if some thread of it exists within you.  Judgment blocks empathy – and the place to look for judgments is within your belief system.
  • Your Emotions. For example, how do fear and anger work for you.  Just as there are emotions that enable the emotion of empathy to flow, there are several that impede it – fear and anger being the great gatekeepers.  Because of the interrelationship between those two powerful emotions – they can be explored and their inner workings revealed together.  Two quick examples: we may “fear” that if we demonstrate our empathy towards someone, we may be  taken advantage of: and we may withhold our empathy when we also experience anger at someone’s behavior.  Because most of us don’t have a great deal of experience “holding” multiple and seemingly contradictory emotions, we allow the more protective emotion (anger or pride) to dominant the more vulnerable feelings (hurt or fear, for example).
  • Your Willingness to stay open and accept the caring, kindness and empathy others show you.  Sometimes people are more willing to express these feelings towards others, than receive them.  This is usually because allowing empathy in from others, can trigger other feelings like vulnerability that we are not used to experiencing.

As we wrap up this series  we want to reiterate the power of the role of empathy in every aspect of your life – family, work, relationships – and most important to you and how you experience the world.  Seeing the world from your empathic lenses may feel a lot harder, more vulnerable and even naive these days.  But the benefits greatly outweigh the costs of self-protection.

  • Empathy heals. The scientific evidence is in. Empathy enhances well-being in ways we are just beginning to understand.
  • Empathy brings people together – it is one of the great “joining” emotions. Empathy is an essential ingredient in advancing trust and understanding in relationships, working collaboratively and creatively with others and illuminating mighty conflicts and tiny misunderstandings.
  • Empathy feels better than being angry and fearful – when we hold back our empathic impulses we  inevitably close ourselves down.  Emotions are meant to flow (the root word of emotion comes from the Latin words, e’movere, meaning to moveout). Emotions are meant to move! Blocking our impulses carries a price tag – you cannot simply shut down the flow of one emotion without impacting others.

Ultimately, the greatest gifts of empathy come not simply from understanding the other person’s feelings, but what it does for you in the short – and long-term.

Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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