Two of these things hold you back, only one of them gets you to who you want to be: hint choose empathy
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I will never forget the day that I had to explain to my 53 year old fiance what empathy means. I thought this was something everyone just knew. That it was, maybe a natural, or at least common, human trait.
It wasn’t, it isn’t.
See, we had just been through a major rift. And I was hurt by what I had found out about him. Beyond hurt. And all I wanted from him was empathy. To hear that he could feel my pain, to take it in, to actually get how badly I was hurting, and to listen to me, just listen, and of course, do the things that heal — stop engaging in the negative behaviors that caused me such pain, move beyond apology, hug me and tell me that he understood and he is here for me.
It takes a while to get to that place sometimes.
Especially when something that to me is as easy as breathing, is like a foreign language to so many people, and yes, some of them right here in my home, in my family.
No wonder our society is at such a breaking point in so many areas. No one is capable of sitting still, listening, and feeling true empathy. Though we are born with this — mirror neurons that allow us to connect with those around us, — we have a society and a culture that destroys these neurons and encourage disconnect, distance, isolation, and fear.
Sympathy is common but like most things in our culture, sympathy focuses on us — on how we feel about the person’s issues, we can tell them we are so sorry they had to go through this, or that thing. But we do not really give them our full attention and connect with them in a way that allows them to feel their pain and know that we can truly, deeply demonstrate our understanding with them. And sympathy often comes with advise or attempts to fix the person or problem.
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It’s not giving advice, it’s not just sympathy, and it’s not just an intellectual understanding of the situation. It’s not assuming we know what someone else is going through. Empathy is the process of trying to learn more, to feel more, to be compassionate, and to respectfully validate and affirm the struggles going on in other people.Empathy requires kindness and cultivation. It demands love and forgiveness. It requires vulnerability and learning from mistakes and from allowing others to be vulnerable and to learn from their mistakes.
And yet, something that sounds like such an amazing thing is often met with a lot of resistance. In my life, in my home, and in our culture. Look at the internet. Look at how many people ‘laugh react’ on posts or comments where people are expressing pain or talking about something that hurts them. People do not want to think that they play a role in another person’s suffering. And if they do think about it, then a lot of people want to write it off, to maybe shift blame and infer that the person talking about their pain is probably a weak bleeding heart snowflake who needs to toughen up.
In my own life I know that my partner and I can have amazing conversations about religion, race/racism, class/classism, politics, nature, science, — but that when I bring up sexism/misogyny the conversations get harder. The ability to find a hook to get him interested in learning about the very painful ways this culture of misogyny, sexism, objectification, and let’s face it, hate for women have impacted me and all women is just something he resists hearing.
Perhaps because it is too painful, as a man, to think about how he has not had to go through things like this. Perhaps because many men assume that well, they haven’t hit a woman, they haven’t done anything that bad, it can’t be a major issue in society then, can it?
We have this false set up in our culture where everyday acts and the structures that maintain sexism and deep misogyny go unnoticed.
This is often because women have internalized deep misogyny and sexism and act them out in our own lives. Some women watch misogynist videos, think porn is ok, laugh at sexist jokes, let their bodies be used without love or respect, and I am sure almost all of us excuse daily insults and so on.
Many men see this and think, well, if it is not bothering these women, it must not be a real thing. It must be just some radical feminists who are upset about a few things here and there. They use anecdotal evidence of women enacting internalized misogyny to dismiss the idea of systems, structures, history, institutions, and real world patterns and statistically significant facts. Then they can go on about their day without feeling bad or like they have hurt anyone.
And often the culture of toxic masculinity encourages men to not show each other empathy. To not call each other out when they are witness to, or participating in, sexism and expressing misogyny. I can name on one hand the number of men in my life who have actually ever read a book about feminism or misogyny. Or have an understanding that misogyny/sexism is an oppression. And it’s about power and control.
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If they don’t know what it is, then of course they don’t think they are doing it. But, as with any of our isms, — only men can stop sexism, — only men working with other men to be better men can change the way this world treats and views women and girls. And this will require that men learn about and practice deep empathy.
Whatever the issue of struggle, it is clear that in our culture many people resist learning and practicing empathy in many if not most areas of life.
And guess what? I have empathy for them because wow, what a bummer to realize things are not the way you thought they were.
When confronted with people who are resisting empathy, think about ways to ask them questions that might get them to understand their own resistance. Ask how you might be able to help. Ask what they might need. And wait. Patiently. But firmly.
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I believe that fear is something that gets in the way of empathy. Fear drives resistance. Fear puts up walls and roadblocks. Because asking some people to actually feel pain at all might be too much. Asking some people to sit with someone else and hold space for them while they are suffering is too hard.
But above all, as with most fear, the fear is there to protect the person from having to go through a transformation of heart and spirit. The fear is there to keep the person small, safe, and boxed in. Because imagine, — imagine thinking nothing is that bad, and then finding out that it actually might be. And that things that you do, have done, things that you like or have liked, things that you never saw a problem with, might actually be a major problem. Imagine the fear of having to change.
People fear change, but change is necessary for growth. If we are afraid of learning empathy because it might cause us pain, this is a sign to move beyond fear and to allow every hard feeling to just show up.
There is another side, -you get there, you feel it, you cross over, and then you grow.
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Growth and Meaningful Connection
Empathy can solve problems in our day-to-day lives, in our relationships, and in how the world works. Empathy is something we give, something we receive and something that requires us to connect and to work together. Empathy is the only path towards healing and social justice on every level, interpersonal, family, community, society, and global.
It is transformative.
So how do we get people in our lives to learn about and practice empathy? And then after we do this, how do we, eventually work our way up to ensure those who make major decisions for our cities, states, and our nation also practice kindness, compassion, and empathy?
People who struggle in life, early on, well we tend to have tons of empathy. Because we know what pain and hurt feel like and we can identify and feel these things deeply in others. Walking through fire is a sure way to know what others who are walking through fire are feeling. People who had relatively normal or at least low level traumatic childhoods might not grasp all this stuff as easily.
Aside from that what helps? Empathy helps, obviously. Talking about it with those you love, asking for it when you need it and providing some tips and examples about what it is, how to do it. This is what has worked for me. And yes, he’s getting better. He’s always been a guy interested in learning and in growing, in spirituality and in self-improvement, so he’s getting there. And I am being patient. Empathy requires learning, reflection, and emotional depth on the part of all involved.
I also keep my bookshelves well stocked with books about empathy, kindness, compassion, and communication. A brief starter kit includes Nonviolent Communication, by Marshall Rosenberg, and The Fear Book, by Cheri Huber.
Communication is key, sharing is key, and being your true authentic self is key. Empathy is something that we can role model and teach. Yes, we are born with the greatest of potential for connecting and deep feeling, but society erodes those in us as fast as it possibly can under its current neoliberal capitalist patriarchal white supremacist cultural conditions.
But we can do something.
We can choose empathy over resistance, empathy over fear. We can grow.
Jenny Justice is a mom, Sociology instructor, reading/writing tutor, and writer. You can follow her on Medium for more insightful articles, essays on empathy and introversion, and all other things nerdy, kind, spiritual, and informative when it comes to parenting, kids, culture, and social justice.