There come moments in all of our lives when we wonder if we are “bad people” for being preoccupied with our own struggles. In these moments, the semantics behind the word “bad” in reference to a person usually don’t mean much to us, nor do any plethora of spiritual beliefs around the worth of every human. Instead, all too often, the corrupt rhetoric expert in the back of our head (what Cognitive Behavioral Specialists would see as an “emotion mind”) can start running wild with this concept. In my experience, I have witnessed these moments of self-doubt in my life and the lives of those close to me most often amidst intense lifetime snapshots- such as times of illness, loss, or transition. In these times, often it is hard to empathize with and feel other’s feeling because just feeling your own can be beyond overwhelming. Here are 5 reminders I have found helpful during these periods when seeking to embody empathy seems like a distant or painful quest.
1. Empathy can be simple. One of the greatest gestures of empathy in my life was from a woman I never met nor talked to. While being discharged from a hospital after a difficult relapse, I was handed a homemade blanket that was anonymously donated to be given to a patient in transition. It changed my life. Eat the elephant one bite at a time.
2. Self-compassion is healthy and shameless (Oh and it’s hard). Give yourself a break. Struggling is a full-time job. Recognizing your experience as being a difficult one and empathizing with that is a radical act in a culture that often perpetrates the unhealthy message that you must ALWAYS “put others first” to be a good worker or parent or person. Make a time when it is okay to care for you.
3. There is no empathy quota, and there are no boxes to check. In one therapy model I implement in my own life, RO DBT, there is a lot of encouragement to let go of a rigid black and white view of life. While this therapy model is designed for people who struggle with control and perfectionism, this particular tenant of releasing the need to meet personal standards is applicable to most everyone when it comes to empathy. There is no need to be perfect at being empathetic, and many days you will miss a chance to connect or be too emotionally drained to listen actively. That is okay- there is no right way to pursue connection and you do not have to connect with absolutely everyone all the time. Rather, aim to recognize that imperfection and awkward moments are just as much of a part of the human experience as those moments of understanding and bonding.
4. It’s harder to practice what you refuse to experience. In my social work classes, we are frequently taught that we must be willing to utilize the services we wish to provide before we start providing them as social workers. This builds a greater respect for both sides of the job and tends to help us as (sometimes overly eager) young social work students to re-ground ourselves in the dignity of those we are serving. The same goes for empathy. Consider opening yourself up to share your struggles with a trusted person, and mindfully observe the feelings and sensations of this engagement. Reflect on it and ask yourself, “How did it feel to be vulnerable?"
5. The fact that you are reading this article means you care. Nobody makes it this far into a blog post in 2019 without an intrinsic motivator. You clearly care about yourself, and you care deeply about others. Plan one small step for the next week to empathize with both of those parties and recognize that we are all experiencing this journey together. You are not alone and this struggle, whatever it is, shall pass.