In our everyday lives we engage in a multitude of social interactions that can often include moments of frustration, both with others and ourselves. You may be cut-off in traffic and become angry, or you may become frustrated with yourself for forgetting to pay a bill on time. Regardless of the source of your frustration, these difficult feelings as a reaction to everyday challenges are certainly unwelcome. Although these feelings may be communicating important information about each situation, it is unhelpful to allow them to overshadow our daily lives.
If we allow these difficult moments to get the best of us, we become increasingly vulnerable to the unavoidable stressors in our daily lives and consequently we open the door for symptoms of depression or anxiety.
Instead of embracing this downward spiral, we can choose to respond differently to these everyday interactions. By bringing awareness to these reactions, we can work to respond in a manner that will enable resiliency in our lives. So, what is the secret to empowering this form of resiliency? The secret lies within ourselves and specifically with our ability to respond empathically in difficult situations and circumstances.
Empathy can be defined simply as the ability to truly understand the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of others. As with all emotions, empathy has evolved in our affective experience for interpersonal reasons that better enable our survival. As social creatures, complex interpersonal relationships are key to our survival and empathy empowers our ability to navigate our social environments. Empathy is also often recognized as the foundation of morality; if we better understand the perspective of others, we are more able to behave in socially appropriate and compassionate ways.
Although empathy is most often used to understand the perspective of others, we can also apply this when interpreting our own individual experience.
As we’ve discussed, increased empathy can mitigate feelings of anger, frustration, or even betrayal in social situations. But many people consider themselves to be their own harshest critics, and this self-criticism often leads to negative conscious (or unconscious) self-talk. Over time, this self-criticism can spiral into symptoms of depression or even anxiety. By having greater empathy with ourselves, we can have more compassion in regards to our situations and life circumstances. Empathy is not only an important interpersonal tool, but it enables resiliency and distress tolerance in our individual experiences.
In a world where technological interactions have replaced face-to-face, interpersonal contact, true empathy has been thought to be on the decline. This is most definitely discouraging, especially when considering how powerful a greater sense of empathy can be. Not only does empathy have the potential to improve our interpersonal experiences by offering a greater understanding of one another, but it can improve our own emotional response to difficult situations. With this in mind, a great deal of psychotherapists believe that empathy can be extremely therapeutic and healing. When we believe that others truly understand our pain, we no longer feel alone in our difficult experience. When we understand what has brought us to our current situations, as well as how we can react compassionately and empathically in all situations, we foster resiliency in ourselves and those around us.
In this way, a more universal effort to foster empathy in our daily lives has great potential to create healing where there is pain and to foster peace where there is chaos.
This is certainly a bold statement, however, if we better understand others, as well as ourselves, the need for anger, aggression, fear, disappointment, and frustration becomes exceptionally unproductive and unnecessary. As the benefit to fostering empathy in our daily lives becomes ever clearer, following some simple steps can help us better apply this abstract concept in our lives:
First, it is important to reflect on empathy. Anytime we are confronted with a difficult situation and may consequently be presented with undesired feelings, we are offered on opportunity to reflect on the situation in an empathic manner. Ask yourself, what is happening and what thoughts am I having? How do I feel about this and how do others involved feel about the situation? Why do I have these feelings, how does this impact my core beliefs and value system? As we reflect on these questions, we are better able to understand the situation and we open the door to listen for what the situation may be communicating.
The next step in fostering empathy in any given situation is to embody the process. This can be done by attempting to sit with and breathe into whatever feelings may arise, all in an effort to be present with those feelings and to listen for what they may be offering. In this step it can also be beneficial to embody what others may be experiencing, think about what they could be feeling and where they might be feeling it. How does the embodied emotion feel in your body? By sitting with presenting emotions from an experiential perspective we gain the ability to truly understand what is happening not only for ourselves, but for others as well. With this second step, we are well on our way towards fostering empathy in our daily lives.
With reflection we’ve achieved a greater cognitive understanding of the given situation and with embodiment we’ve achieved a felt experience of the situation–we are now ready to relay our empathic understanding. This step is especially important when striving towards greater empathy in interpersonal situations.
When we relay to others what we understand about their situation, we are able to validate their experience, as well as clarify our own understanding of the experience.
When we relay our understanding, we also create an opportunity that allows for a conversation about the shared experience. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, often when we discuss our experiences and feel understood by others, we can begin to feel better ourselves.
After we relay our empathic understanding and engage in any necessary conversation, we are then prepared to act on our more empathic perspective. Acting on our empathy may include treating others or even ourselves with greater respect, or this may lend to more pro-social, compassionate behaviors, both in relation to others, as well as with ourselves.
Finally, as we more clearly see the benefits of fostering empathy in our life experiences and as we begin to understand the steps we can take to encourage empathy, we must also grasp boundaries in relation to this concept. It is important to keep in mind that empathy is meant to be experienced in the present moment. If we begin dwelling or ruminating on the difficult experiences of others, we may begin to retain feelings of sadness, anger, or frustration. However, if we are able limit our empathic attunement to specific interactions, and especially to what is happening in the present moment, we will be better able to obtain the benefits of empathy without experiencing the difficulties that can come with overextending our emotional minds.
So remember… be gentle with yourself, be kind to others, become the catalyst for a more compassionate and peaceful world. Reach for empathy in the present moment–reflect, embody, relay, and act. If anything has the potential to create peace within ourselves and the world at large, that thing is empathy.