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Empathizing with Others: A Practice in Progression

Even with clarity on some of the common empathy struggles, empathizing is not easy. As with Pause and Observe, we will benefit from practicing empathizing if we wish to enhance our ability to Empathize in the moments when we need it the most. Empathizing builds on the foundation of Pause and Observe, as successful empathizing requires sensitivity—attunement to and accurate interpretation of our and the beloved’s needs. Empathizing with others requires self-empathy. When we Empathize, we seek to answer the question, “What explains this behavior?”

Empathizing with Others

Empathizing with others is similar to our self-empathizing practice. However, our speculations are more tentative, as we don’t have access to their thoughts and we cannot know all of their lived experiences.  The self-empathy sentence stem of “I feel______because I am afraid that______” becomes “Perhaps they feel______because they are afraid that______.”

We can use the same areas of inquiry from self-empathy to help us understand and empathize with others: (1) What fears and hungers might these behaviors be evidence of? (2) What does the person need? (3) When was this response adaptive and what is different now?  (4) How might they be engaging in magical thinking? and (5) What is it like for them to live with their beliefs? (See the self-empathy blog for a full discussion of each area.)

Start with “Easy” Empathy

In Buddhist practice, meditators move from wishing happiness for those they find it easy to access their love for to those with whom it is progressively more challenging, ending with people who have intentionally caused them harm. In your practice of empathizing, you may find it beneficial to build your empathy muscles by empathizing first with those who you find it relatively easy to Empathize. This may seem silly—you may think, “Of course, I empathize with my (cat, dog, child, best friend, spouse, etc.).” Actually, as discussed in the blog People with Whom It is Difficult to Empathize, it can be difficult to Empathize with those who we are close to, precisely because our past knowledge can impede our clarity of present vision.  I encourage you to start practicing empathy within a harmonious relationship, instead of in a relationship where you have identified that you are struggling to empathize.

I divide our relationships into four categories: Self, Intimate, Collective, and Universal. After developing your self-empathy skills, the next level of practice is with harmonious intimate or collective relationships. Intimate relationships are our closest level of relationships, marked by acknowledged interdependence. We are also dependent on our collective relationships, but maybe less aware of this truth. In collective relationships, we experience a shared belonging with the other person.

As with self-empathy, as we seek to Empathize with someone else, we seek to non-judgmentally shine our Love flashlight onto the essence of the beloved, without considering the ‘rightness’ of what was done and not assuming that we need to accept the status quo of the relationship. As we Empathize, we will make judgements—it is part of being human. When we observe that we are making judgements, we can praise ourselves for noticing this; we can then lovingly release the judgement. If you find that you are returning to a judgement, then it is a place for self-empathic investigation: What am I needing? What do I fear that is impeding my ability to Empathize with the beloved?

Universal Empathy

Once we have practiced empathizing with a couple of intimate or collective beloveds with whom we are in harmonious relationships, it often makes sense to then practice with a Universal relationship—with someone or a group who we don’t know individually. Although we will be able to form only tentative hypotheses, this will still increase our empathizing (and observing) abilities. This practice can be slipped into your daily life (e.g., as you interact with a cashier, with the people you walk or drive past). It can be as simple as noticing that someone is struggling with heavy packages and thinking, “I imagine they feel it is hard to carry that much weight.”

Getting ahead of myself, these simple acts of empathizing can lead to actions, large and small, of great love (the Message step). One time, I was riding a light rail train to work, absorbed in my reading. I noticed a passenger in my car spring from their seat and press the button to open the door; as the recorded message droned on about letting the doors close so as not to delay the train, they continued to press the button. Looking out the window, I saw a person with metal crutches swinging themselves as rapidly as they could towards the open door, but not fast enough to catch the train unless it was halted. Ironically, the book I was reading was about the importance of being an engaged scholar whose research does good in the world—meanwhile, my fellow passenger, who had Observed and Empathized, was doing good!

Empathizing with Bad Apples

After having built up our empathizing muscles through practicing with those for whom we feel compassion or indifference, we are ready to practice empathizing with those for whom we feel aversion or antagonism. Again, utilizing a Universal relationship, select someone who has engaged in behaviors of which you disapprove—someone who hasn’t purposefully caused pain or hardship to you specifically, but their actions have increased your pain, or you struggle to reconcile yourself to their actions, which you perceive as causing pain to others. Globally, politics are increasingly polarized, so it is easy for most of us to think of a public official with whom we strongly disagree. I am not asking you to condone their behavior. I am asking you to find their humanness and Empathize with their truth, even while you disagree with them.

Christian minister and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. instructed, based on the teachings of Jesus, that we must love our enemies.  This is very, very difficult work—and imperative, if we are to find a way to live together on this beautiful, interconnected earth. King entreats us to discover the good in our enemies, which will outweigh the bad:

Within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good….Discover the element of good in your enemy. And as you seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.

Buddhist priest Pema Chodron councils that we may be able to access sorrow for a whole situation before we are able to find empathy for the individual(s).  Similarly, in my conflict mediation training, I was taught to find the higher value or goal that is shared—and use that commonality to work together to unpack where and how the parties diverge. Starting with the acknowledgment that our divisive politics reflect fears in everyone, I can find empathy for those with whom I disagree. I recognize that we all feel fear and we all wish, instead, to feel safe.

Other empathy hacks are to imagine the individual as a baby—sweet and innocent, wanting only to be loved. Conversely, you can imagine that this person has only a short time left to live—this can make a current disagreement seem less important. To see them as less one-dimensional, you can imagine the person out in nature, awed by the beauty of a sunset, ocean vista, or snow storm. Or, you can imagine that in three generations, your descendants will be engaged in intimate relationships—in other words, our destinies are intertwined.

Basically, you keep making the frame of reference larger until you can find a shared objective—the ultimate one being that all people wish to love and be loved. Buddhist priest Joan Halifax refers to this as rehumanization —the opposite of dehumanization. During rehumanization, we first seek to see the other as a person; we then strive to see ourselves in the other; and, finally, we recognize our shared, common humanity. To accomplish this, we need to divest ourselves from any outcomes, so that we can sit with all the unknowns and imagine reaching out beyond divisions, meeting uncertainty with curiosity and strength.

Empathizing in a Hurtful Relationship

This moves us onto the hardest practice: finding empathy for someone we know and who we perceive has betrayed us—someone who has done something hurtful to or failed to do something protective for us. Please make sure that this is the right time for you to engage in this work—and, if unsure, either wait or seek support from a professional guide who you trust and who can help you to create a container of love, in which to keep yourself safe. Also, it is important to engage in this practice in manageable, self-loving chunks—attend to and stop the practice if you feel yourself losing your equilibrium. You may only be able to work towards empathizing with someone who has hurt you for a short period of time, and then need to engage in self-care.

When we are seeking to Empathize with someone who has hurt us in an intimate or collective relationship, we know a lot more about the individual than in the previous practice of empathizing with someone with whom we disagree, but do not know. No matter how terrible an act they have committed, no person can be defined solely by their worst moment—we are all a jumbled mix of honorable and regrettable actions. We can access our empathy for this person by first lingering on the things that they have added to our lives: things we learned from them, things we admire in them, shared times of joy.

Then—again possibly with professional support—standing barefoot next to them, we seek to Empathize with their fears and unmet needs that led them to behave in a way that hurt us. As we do this, we notice when we fall into well-worn narratives that remove agency from either them or ourselves. With love, we accept that we carry these stories as they once protected us; and, we challenge their current utility for seeing the truth and to our ability to Empathize.

Being able to Empathize with someone who has hurt us deeply is a slow, gradual process that cannot be rushed, no matter how much we might wish. We show up, we enact the practice, and eventually our ability to Empathize, even with those who have hurt us the most, increases. I used to work as an art therapist at a residential facility for children who had been abused, removed from their first family, and then ‘failed out’ of foster care. Their hurts ran deep—those who were supposed to love and protect them had mistreated them horribly, perpetrating acts of violence and negligence; some of the children knew no relationships free of abuse until coming to our facility. My wise supervisor taught me that we will always have a relationship with our family—even if that relationship doesn’t include contact. The staff helped each child make a scrapbook of their life, of all the significant relationships it had contained. This was a beautiful, tangible means of seeing that no individual is only their offenses—and, simultaneously, with Love big enough to hold them and their beloveds, we acknowledged the abuse that occurred.

Empathizing with someone who has hurt you does not mean that you forgive them—or that you ever should. Forgiveness can only come when the person has shown remorse, apologized, and is working to be trustworthy. That is work for the person who has betrayed us—and, we can’t control them. Forgiveness is not the objective of practicing empathy with someone who has hurt us. The reason we practice empathizing with a hurtful person is to expand our abilities and options. If we can better understand their drivers, we will have more agency. As podcast host and soccer star Abby Wambach said, it can change how we relate to the relationship.  It may allow us to give up hope for a past that never was. Empathizing with someone who has hurt us will allow us to determine parameters and boundaries that we want to have in that relationship. In addition, it can help us enter future relationships and engage with other current relationships with greater clarity.

And Sometimes, Empathy Won’t Come

Empathizing is invigorating; we feel an understanding of and genuine connection with another. But, to get there, we must willingly make ourselves vulnerable: we choose to take off our shoes and stand barefoot next to someone. Sometimes, we don’t have the resources to do this. That’s okay. As my therapist assures me, there is value in having an intention. The intention to Empathize increases the likelihood of empathizing someday. Besides for the value of your intention, there is great value in honestly seeing that you are unable to Empathize with this person at this moment. Yay, you! Empathize with and love the heck out of yourself for knowing your boundary.

Knowing that you can’t empathize with someone—at least at this point in your life—may lead you to some new parameters of how you want to interact with them. I wish I had had this wisdom after I was raped—I would have not engaged with that person. Being with them was a trigger for me to gaslight myself.

If you know you can’t Empathize, return to Pause, and then Observe. If you feel moved to do so at some future point, try again to Empathize. If you never do feel so moved, then you never do. The only person who I think you should keep trying to Empathize with, even when it’s painful to do so, is yourself. XOXOX

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