It’s always a little worrisome when we must remind one another to step outside the bubbles we’ve created for ourselves and work on making empathy part of one’s life again. It’s a sign that we have become so closed off in our own world that we may have forgotten what it feels like to care about those around us, even perfect strangers.
According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, empathy is defined as:
em·pa·thy | \ ˈem-pə-thē
1. the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner
Many would argue that empathy is one of the most important skill we possess as human beings. Having empathy or lack of can dramatically affect all areas of life. Perhaps we’re in a crisis of losing our sense of togetherness and connectedness, which lowers our empathy skills. Interestingly enough, empathy’s role in society differs per country/culture. For example, since the early 90s, Denmark has enacted MANDATORY empathy classes in all the Danish schools for children 6 to 16 years of age. In fact, all Nordic countries implemented programs that teach emotional awareness and empathy and focuses on how to articulate experiences, thoughts, feelings, and senses. Is it any coincidence that Denmark, Finland, and Norway are consistently ranked as the happiest countries in the world?
Can you imagine if the U.S. required children to go through empathy classes? There would be riots in the streets and shouts from every hilltop of “Don’t tell me how to parent my kids!”. Is our lack of empathetic skills linked to the fact that the U.S. ranks among the lowest in the World’s Happiness Report? You can make your own judgements on that one. But there’s no denying it would be rather difficult to make a claim AGAINST having empathy and compassion towards our fellow man. It’s just that American’s have a “me first” bloated ideology that continues to permeate in society. Empathy is not a skill that is “nice to have”. It’s NECESSARY for survival.
When we lose our sense of empathy, we lose our connection with the rest of the world. We’re confused why we feel lonely and detached. When we isolate ourselves on an emotional level, it cuts us off from understanding or even caring to understand how another person might feel. We go into this “If it doesn’t effect me personally, then why should I care?” mentality. We are self-consumed to that point where trying to understand another person’s feelings or what they’re going through in life doesn’t seem to hold much weight for us anymore. How we connect to information is increasingly affecting how we connect to each other. In 2010, a University of Michigan study found college students were 40% less empathetic than they were in the late 70s and early 80s, and that students were less likely to endorse statements like “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me,” or “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective.” And that’s a 10-year-old study. Can you imagine what the results would be today?!
Empathy is vital to our existence because it connects us to each other. For example, let’s say you had a terrible day at work, losing an important client to a competitor. Your boss has unfairly, in your mind, placed the blame squarely on your shoulders. You’re driving home, filled with anger and angst from your day and towards the job itself as no one ever seems to notice all your hard work. You honk your horn at the person in front of you who’s taking 2 seconds too long to hit the gas pedal at the green light. You blow past them, flipping them off. You speed home, cutting off cars, knowing that you’re getting your frustration out on anyone around you. But you don’t care. You had a bad day and frankly, couldn't care less about anyone else at that moment.
When you finally get home, the house is a wreck. The kids are whining for dinner and fighting with one another. Your significant other is asking you that one question you know will put you over the edge. “What’s wrong”? You immediately snap at your kids, telling them to go to their rooms. And you tell your partner to stop bothering you because you had a bad day. Congratulations! You’ve officially won at projecting all your frustration and anger onto anyone and everyone that was in your way.
In this scenario, you’re consumed with your own feelings to care about the fact that pushing your bad day on everyone else around you will come full circle. The guy at the red light you flipped off, the other drivers on the road you swerved around, your significant other, and your kids all received your wrath. Well done. The problem is that it doesn’t stop there. Because you projected your emotions onto everyone else, you’ve now added stress to their lives. It becomes a domino effect. The guy at the red light takes your negativity and dumps that onto someone else. Your partner goes to the store to get dinner and is rude to the cashier because he/she is unloading your negativity onto them. Your kids, whom you sent to their rooms, are now fighting, taking your negativity and pushing it out to each other. And so and so on, the dominos continue to fall.
Our emotions and actions affect everyone around us. Lack of empathy will absolutely destroy relationships. In order to not feel the deep pains of rejection, some people try to bury any empathy they might have had, so that their ever important ego stays intact. However, what those same people cannot realize is the reality that the more walls we build around ourselves, the lonelier we become. We can not relate to anyone inside the tall tower we’ve built for ourselves. We are social animals. In order to survive and thrive, we must connect with one another. We need to feel the sense of belonging to a community. Empathy is truly what makes us human. It allows us greater success in all areas of our life and allows us to see beyond our own perceptions. And it creates a safe environment for all of us to share and be vulnerable in without ridicule or judgement.
Here are some ways to improve upon your own empathetic skills in order to feel more connected to others:
1. Be consciously aware at all times that everyone is battling something in their lives you know nothing about.
Read that sentence again.Read it again and again and again until your brain really processes it. We often see interesting quotes about life that make us stop and contemplate how we can implement its teachings into our own lives. But with our limited attention span, we quickly forget those life tips and continue on with our lives without really taking to heart what we’ve read. This is big. You must implement the things you wish to change, not just read them and move on. Everyone wants change, yet so few take action themselves. From the cashier at the grocery store who couldn’t have been more rude to the guy that cut you off on your way to work, they are all going through something in their lives they push into the world. Is it right for them to place their issues onto unsuspecting people around them? No, absolutely not! But it’s YOUR reaction and response to it that makes the difference for your own karma and life. The domino effect stops with you.
2. No one is born an asshole.
If you want to believe it is again your choice. But think back to a time when you met a baby and thought to yourself, “Wow, that baby is a dickhead.” Even though it may seem like “bitchiness” or “assholery” is in the genetic makeup of some people we come across, it is not, in fact, in our DNA. Life can be a daunting ride with many twists and loops that flip us upside down, leaving little time to process what we’re going through before being jolted into the next hairpin turn. There are those who have gone through their own personal growth journey to become more aware of themselves. And then there are most individuals who do not take the time to examine the part they play in their own negative view on the world and take zero accountability for their own actions. But all of us have at some point taken our own life circumstances and deflected our emotions onto strangers, family, and friends alike. It is on ALL of us to change that within ourselves. THINK before you react. You are in charge of your brain.
3. The world doesn’t revolve around you.
No one is out to get you or piss you off. The cashier who was rude to you may have just had a customer scream at her. That man that almost hit you swerving in and out of lanes, I promise you, is not trying to ruin your drive home from work. Look past your own nose and realize not everything is about you. Shocking as it may seem, the world doesn’t revolve around us as individuals. And though we may think we understand this, we still continue to take things rather personally when in reality it has nothing to do with us. We’re essentially just collateral damage. How we react, though, is our own responsibility. Own that part, at the very least.
Do you ever complain that the world is going to hell in a handbasket? Do you ever think about what part YOU might play in the lack of empathy in our society? Could you inject more empathy into your everyday life WITHOUT expecting it in return? Remember, it’s not about what you get. It’s about what you GIVE. Everyone is going through something you know nothing about. Give people the benefit of the doubt without taking it as a personal attack when the person isn’t 100% chipper. No matter your sex, color, creed, or financial status, life struggles do not discriminate. Everyone has to deal with them. It’s time we make empathy great again for the sake of humanity.