Life Outside Social Media

Learning How to Empathize


I discovered this video over a year ago and I still bring myself to watch it every once in a while, perhaps one too many times, because it addresses an emotion that I find extremely crucial for humanity yet so difficult to convey. While this beautifully-crafted animation only scratches the surface, it does an excellent job of establishing the fundamental distinction between sympathy and empathy, the latter being an infinitely harder skill to develop. I personally believe that what makes empathy so tough to express is that human beings are innately selfish and afraid of vulnerability. 

     The former may seem like a widely pessimistic view of mankind, but we all know that there’s at least some truth to it. People love to talk about themselves as they share particular views and experiences based only on their own frame of reference. Our frequent incapacity to put ourselves in other people’s shoes keeps us from developing two of the essential qualities of empathy that Dr. Brown mentioned – perspective-taking and staying out of judgment. There’s this culprit named cognitive dissonance (the mental discomfort that arises when our own beliefs and perspectives are being contradicted by differing viewpoints) that makes it so incredibly hard for us to fully grasp each other’s struggles. It’s easy to pour our problems away in a heartfelt conversation with a friend or an acquaintance, but listening and understanding so as to ignite a real connection is a whole other challenge. Fueling a connection in times of other people’s distress is definitely something I’m struggling with and constantly trying to work on because no matter how compassionate and genuine I try to be, I’m still incapable of communicating in a way that actually makes things better. I thought that having a solid set of morals would be enough to be that person whom anyone can confide in since I’ve always been “the listener,” but passive listening can only do so much, and I faced that first-hand when my own best friend’s life was falling apart and I had no idea what to do. One thing I have noticed though when dealing with someone who's in pain is that people have very different coping mechanisms, and once you figure out what that is by gaining the person's trust and seeing through their mind's eye, developing a connection becomes miles easier. 

     The latter, on another note, focuses more on the two other qualities of empathy – recognizing emotion in other people and communicating that. This might be an even more arduous matter to tackle because we live in a society that looks down on vulnerability, and we can’t effectively implement these qualities of empathy without this fundamental aspect. As Dr. Brown said, in order to ignite a connection, you must look within yourself to find a part of you that recognizes that pain, but for many of us, we don’t want to revisit those negative feelings and repressed memories because we’re afraid of being perceived as weak the second we become vulnerable. Instead, we shift away from the problem by finding some silver lining, which in some instances might help temporarily, but what will truly convey empathy is showing the person in distress that you’re present and you're willing to experience the same pain just to let them know that they don’t have to go through it alone. 

     The bottom line is: you must wear your heart on your sleeve unapologetically, wholeheartedly, and selflessly to communicate empathy, and that's certainly something I need to improve on as I dive into a profession that heavily involves the ability to empathize. It’s a significant skill to be developed over time, and it is by no means easy especially with the way that most of us are wired. But once we learn to embrace the beauty of vulnerability, connecting with each other on an unfathomable level will be so gratifying, and maybe, just maybe, our faith in humanity will be restored. 

• • •

     I highly encourage anyone who’s reading this to look further into Dr. Brené Brown’s work which focuses on human connection. Her TEDtalk about the power of vulnerability [link] is one of my absolute favorites as it provides great insight on how vulnerability is directly tied to our sense of worthiness to be loved and to belong.

Friday, March 24, 2017