em⋅pa⋅thy [em-puh-thee]

Empathy is a interesting word, the dictionary definition is:

1. the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
2. the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself: By means of empathy, a great painting becomes a mirror of the self.

We use it in our lives, often in respect to other people and our expectations of them, “they don’t have empathy” or “they need empathy,” but often, we don’t have a deep understanding of what empathy even means to ourselves, let alone what it means to others. For me empathy means, being able to put myself into someone elses shoes, to ask myself to suspend judgement and work to understand the other persons perspective, most especially if I don’t understand or like it.  In my mind, empathy isn’t about feeling sorry for the other, but rather to feel compassion for what their experience is.

In relationships, we often start off with love and affection. Due to the daily hazards of living with someone else, that love and affection can erode. We develop habits of interactions, conversations, expectations, and arguments. As we build walls against the hurts and disappointments, we tend to lose the empathy that allows us access to the other persons perspective. So, what’s a person to do to increase empathy? Increasing empathy requires awareness, if I understand that I’m pissed or hurt, I can take steps to remove myself until I feel better able to shift my focus to what might be going on for the other.  Then I can begin to work on depersonalizing myself from their reactions, focusing on the idea that people have different perspectives.  And, that they are at all moments living in the model of the world they have created, just like I am.  If I care about the person, parent, friend, child, lover, etc, it benefits me and the relationship to find the empathy to their perspective and work on finding ways to share mine without blame.  Blame just seems to sink their battleship and piss them off more, reducing empathy and increasing angst.

In “Mindsight,” the new book by Daniel Siegel, he discusses people practicing mindfulness and awareness to calm their bodies.  This practice helps them to manage their own emotional reaction and allows them access back to empathy and gives them the ability to work on repairing hurts.  I am only just starting this book, but I like it so far.


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