How I Learned Empathy in the Darkest Hour of My Life

When you live in a dire environment, you survive by becoming selfish.

Mike Goldberg
Feb 18 · 8 min read
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Photo by Xavier Mouton Photographie on Unsplash

good place for me to begin is to talk about my upbringing. No person had more of an effect on me than my father.

My father was a hyper-selfish person who lacked any sense of self-awareness. We don’t know much about his childhood other than a few stories he told us, but we do know he suffered from deep neglect as a child and was even put in a foster home for a while because my grandparents didn’t want to deal with his social and emotional problems.

I was raised in a very neglectful environment where our needs weren’t met because he was completely ignorant of them. If I protested to get his attention, I was called a spoiled brat — so it’s like he purposely made sure to not see or hear us.

The house was in terrible condition and anybody who ever visited could attest to this. He just didn’t care. The carpets were so worn out, floor tacks would puncture our feet if we didn’t step over thresholds. There was mold in my sister’s room, and she was always sick. There were piles of old yellow newspapers covering the floor. The smell of cat urine permeated the house.

The way he took care of the house was the way he took care of his family: Extreme neglect.

He just didn’t give a damn.

I didn’t realize that any of this was abnormal, of course — this was simply the world I lived in. Well, I knew something might be off, but I had nothing to compare it to.

I grew resentful of others. I felt excluded, and if they didn’t care about me, I wasn’t going to care about them.

Here’s the thing. When you live in a dire environment like that, you survive by becoming selfish.

When you are selfish, you have difficulty with social relationships. Going to school, I really didn’t have any friends. I didn’t know why. But kids excluded me, and I didn’t have the faculties to socialize.

Lack of social experience caused an even greater lack of social experience and as other kids were growing and maturing emotionally, I was stunted. I just couldn’t understand what other people were going through.

I had never dated — never knew how to communicate with girls — so I had no frame of reference. If someone suffered a breakup, I couldn’t understand how devastating that was.

I grew resentful of others. I felt excluded, and if they didn’t care about me, I wasn’t going to care about them.

Takeaway:

Perhaps the reality you live in isn’t reality at all! Be willing to look deeply into your life, study the messages you’ve received, and ask yourself why you believe what you do in the first place.

Being Treated By Others As “Less Than”

As a teenager, I remember watching the movie The Breakfast Club.

I think I most identified with Brian (although now that I think about it, I was probably closer to Allison).

There was the scene where Claire communicated that Brian was lower than her and she said she couldn’t handle being judged if the two of them were seen walking down the hall together. She hated having to go along with everything everyone said but told the group they wouldn’t understand.

I had no equity, and so, I just didn’t care about them and their problems. Not until they’d shown me they cared about me. Otherwise, why should I?

She was right — I didn’t understand. And I resented her for it. Because I believed that if you really were that popular, you had the power to do whatever the hell you wanted, and you could shape reality (like Cindy declaring Ronald “popular” in the movie Can’t Buy Me Love).

I couldn’t connect with any of the other characters in The Breakfast Club and I just couldn’t see why their problems were so bad — other than Brian, because he didn’t have friends, and the popular girl looked down on him.

But that’s the way my world looked. I had no equity, and so I just didn’t care about them and their problems. Not until they’d show me they cared about me. Otherwise, why should I?

Post high school, I began to socialize a bit more, but most of the people I knew were pretty socially inept. The only people around me lacked any sort of social awareness, and they failed to recognize the level of difficulty I was facing.

So it was one of those things — I lacked social experience, so I lacked the ability to develop social experience. I was stuck.

I went off to college and what could have been the greatest time of my life… wasn’t. If only I would have had some tools to work with at that point, I could have really capitalized on the experience. But I came in at level 0, and I left at level 0.

It was not a happy situation.

It was the only thing I ever knew, and I was doomed to continue down the same path unless something changed.

For the next few years, life continued down the same course. The group of friends I had assembled back home became cliquish and slowly began to discard me, and it became more and more acceptable to treat me as “less than.”

It’s not something that happened overnight, and it happened so gradually that it was hard to notice at first. Everyone went to the movies but forgot to invite me. Hmm… must have slipped their mind. Somebody had a birthday, invited everyone else, but didn’t have a seat for me. Odd. Got kicked off the hockey team I helped start because they wanted my spot for their friend — OK, what the fuck!?

I was devastated to have been discarded like that. Why did this happen?

I didn’t have the perspective at the time, but I figured out later how it happened.

I created this.

I created that group of people in my father’s image. Every person in that group demonstrated a low level of emotional intelligence and empathy. It was the only thing I ever knew, and I was doomed to continue down the same path unless something changed.

Takeaway:

Listen to people. Try to imagine what it would be like to be them. Imagine what motivates them.

Deus Ex Machina: My Escape

And then one day, everything changed.

A 21-year-old kid answered an ad I put in the paper for a roommate. He was unlike any person I had ever met before. He was confident, well adjusted, social, and simply… cool.

In other words, for the first time in my life, I met someone normal.

And it was exactly what I needed.

Life moved at lightning speed from that moment. Everything changed, instantly. We became the best of friends very quickly as he took me into his world.

I went through a period of catchup learning. Years of experience, compressed into a matter of weeks. And I was accelerating.

Takeaway:

If you have suffered from neglect and want to break out of your “prison,” know that there are some really great people out there. Look for the “elites.” They possess a higher level of emotional intelligence, and they’ll try to find a way to include you.

The Awakening

I started to meet people. A high five turned into a conversation that soon turned into a new contact, which turned into an invite to a party, which turned into a workout buddy.

I developed friendships. I was invited into people’s lives.

As I got to know people, I found that I was able to put myself in their shoes. I could feel their pain, even if I couldn’t relate to their situation.

I started to learn all about them. I met their friends. I listened to their stories. Heard their histories. Their triumphs. Their failures. Their laughter. Their tears. Their secrets.

And for the first time ever… I cared.

As I got to know people, I found that I was able to put myself in their shoes. I could feel their pain, even if I couldn’t relate to their situation.

If people celebrated good news, I felt joy for them.

I felt myself growing.

As strangers became friends, I could begin to have these feelings for strangers. I watched people as I went about my day and tried to read what I could about their life. I tried to imagine what it must feel like to be them.

Over time, my personality started to change. I started putting myself in the shoes of complete strangers. Instead of becoming angry at the person on the freeway who was involved in an accident that caused me to wait in traffic, I felt bad for them. I had gained that experience.

And so I decided the answer was to go out and experience more things. The more I experienced, the more I could relate to others. I allowed myself to go through various events. I put myself in new situations. I met new kinds of people. I traveled. I moved across the country to Florida for a while.

And every new thing I did was one more thing I could look back on and say “I know how that feels.”

Not so surprisingly, I felt a whole lot happier. I stopped looking at people as adversaries or competition, and instead, I would try to crawl into people’s minds, and I could understand their thought processes and the motivations that caused them to act out against other people. I felt their pain.

And I figured out that if I could humanize myself to them, I could disarm them. I could extinguish hate or indifference by causing them to feel compassion.

Takeaway:

Gain experience. The more you experience, the more you can relate to others. So put yourself through experiences. Meet people. Learn about them.

The Homecoming

One evening — right around the time I had turned 30, I settled into my apartment in Tampa for the night and turned on the TV. The Breakfast Club was playing, so I decided to watch and reminisce.

And this time, it felt like a whole new movie. For the first time, I understood all of their struggles. Bender wasn’t a dick, he was in pain. Allison suffered from neglect. Andrew would never measure up in his father’s eyes. Brian could only please his parents if he got good grades. Claire could never be her own person and had to follow what the cool kids expected of her.

I came up with a simple, but immutable understanding: It must be so hard to be them.

I finally got it.

And that’s the moment I realized that I had learned empathy.

Takeaway:

There’s a famous quote attributed to Philo of Alexandria, and you should live by this principle:

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a difficult battle.”

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness and fulfillment.

Mike Goldberg

Written by

Traveller. Investor. Storyteller. Author of “The First Step” — Coming soon!

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join thousands of others making the climb on Medium.

Mike Goldberg

Written by

Traveller. Investor. Storyteller. Author of “The First Step” — Coming soon!

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join thousands of others making the climb on Medium.

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