“You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.” — John Steinbeck
“You don’t qualify. Next.”
“You’ll need to contact your provider. Next.”
The exchange of words between the woman and the patient found me with a knot in my throat as I listened. The tone of her voice was not as friendly with this patient as it was with the young lady who was next in line — she had a way to pay for her visit, and that set her apart.
To meet them on the street, you would have a difficult time finding a difference between the two people, but the woman ... the woman saw a difference and clearly had never felt what the patient was feeling. As Steinbeck said, without that, she could never understand the patient, any patient who was unable to qualify, since she had never experienced that.
For as long as I can remember feeling anything, I can remember feeling everything. I thought I was just different until someone with more expertise explained that I was one of those feeler people — an empath. My response was that yes, I was empathetic, but they quickly corrected me. People who are empathetic are able to tune in to what another person is feeling in an experience, as opposed to someone like I who stays tuned in and feels what others are feeling most of the time.
While you might happily avoid the strain of feeling so much, you can (and I believe should) cultivate empathy.
Empathy can be learned.
“I’m a nice person, Susan,” you say. Well, you probably are, but there is a difference between being nice and being empathetic. The lady at the doctor’s office obviously knew how to be nice, but she chose to be nice when it was comfortable. Empathy can mean letting yourself be uncomfortable.
Some questions to ask yourself (or to ask others about you):
- · Are you a good listener? Do you look at people when they are talking, or are you busy looking at your phone, magazine, or the television? Do you react or cut people off before they can finish speaking?
- · Do you try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes? Imagine if you were the other person, feeling the pressure they feel in their job, having the lack of resources they have in their daily life, or not having the supportive people you have. How would that feel?
- · Are you able to disagree without judging? When it’s more important to be “right” than to allow for other opinions and outcomes, it’s a sure sign that your empathy meter is running on empty.
- · Backing up for a minute, let me spell out four reactions to other people’s lives/experiences/situations that we might have:
apathy — it’s not our problem
sympathy — we’re sorry they’re having problems (sometimes this conveys an attitude of superiority)
empathy — we really try to feel what the other person is feeling, picturing ourselves in their same situation
compassion — we take the understanding that comes from our empathy and channel it into being able to help the other person
It’s easier to develop empathy for people who are most like we are, but that’s a bit like staying in an echo chamber so we hear only the opinions that match our own.
Getting a little uncomfortable is our first step. Maybe you’d like to try to learn something new — learn a new language, try your hand at a craft you’ve never done or join an exercise class. It’s pretty humbling to struggle with learning something new, especially if those around you are doing better, but it’s probably how other people feel when they are trying to measure up in our world.
Do you know you are biased? We all are, and it impacts our ability to empathize, but we can overcome those by recognizing what they are. A person’s race, religion, age and social standing might be things we are allowing to stand in the way of being empathetic. One way to overcome this is to have a conversation with a person different from you and expect that you might learn from them despite the differences between you.
One of my favorite stories of empathy is that of Tony McAleer with Life After Hate (and The Forgiveness Project). At one time, McAleer was a leader in Neo-Nazi groups, hurling stones and words to remind people of how much he hated them for their sexual orientation, their skin color, their religion. His story is full of empathy, as he began to know those he once hated (and who still loved him despite his past), and compassion for himself and for others.
Developing empathy means working to have positive answers to the above questions, but there’s more. Empathy alone can be pretty exhausting. Being alert to feel what others are feeling becomes most effective when coupled with compassion.
Compassion, as you might have seen earlier is when we are able to take the empathy we’ve developed and put it into action literally or figuratively. Compassion is what enables us jump in and help with clean-up after a tornado, send various items to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, or donate blood when the Red Cross announces their supplies are dangerously low. Though compassion is sometimes self-serving, it is usually altruistic with great benefit.
The lady in the doctor’s office was apathetic, according to the definitions I found. Could that be you? Have you decided that someone else’s struggle is not your problem? How can you ever hope to understand people, or expect others to understand you?
We must be willing to try to feel what others are feeling unless making others feel low is what makes you happy. There’s a word for that — sadist, and that’s for another discussion.
Susan Black Steen is a writer and photographer, a native Tennessean and a graduate of Austin Peay State University. With a firm belief that words matter, she writes and speaks to bring joy, comfort and understanding into each life. Always, she writes from her heart in hopes of speaking to the hearts of others.