Empathy can be defined as having the ability to take perspective. It is being able to appreciate that the reality as seen by others is just as real as your own.
The reason why people struggle with being empathic is partially because they believe the world as they see it, is the only reality that there is, and if someone else's perception of the world is different, it cannot be real.
Another reason why we find being empathic challenging is because we usually find it difficult to feel what the other person feels. It is challenging and may only really happen once we ourselves had actually gone through a similar situation. Otherwise, it is very difficult to imagine yet alone feel the same way others do.
Being a mother has allowed me to appreciate all the challenges that come with this role. It also enabled me to feel empathy for all the new mothers out there – confused, surprised, overwhelmed....you name it. Up until over a year ago I had no idea and for that it was much harder for me to feel empathy towards new or not-so-new mothers challenged by their new circumstance. Everyone works hard in one way or another, I used to think. Everyone is pushed to their limits, if not by their child, then by their boss, office politics or their partner, and that is how I related to motherhood in the past.
How to be more empathetic?
So what could I have done to try to relate to motherhood before becoming a mum?
Brene Brown, the author of "Braving the Wilderness" (her latest book), suggests that empathy is not about putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes and instead it is choosing to believe them. Believe that their world does look the way they describe it and no more or less but that way.
There is a number of exercises you can do, which allow understanding the other person’s perspective by literally sitting in their seat for a while. We can all train ourselves to do it, and not necessarily by swapping seats with others, but by being more mindful and present with others and with what they mean, when they tell us how it really is for them.
I have talked about mindfulness many times and in different contexts. So why is it that we are not more mindful to understand others? Or not often enough?
The reason why we don’t pay attention to what is going on in the moment is because we are absorbed with our own feelings, emotions, our own problems and often times, we feel that we require the attention from others just as much and they do, from us.
We feel the need to be understood, to be heard, to feel significant just as much as they do. And as a result of that need not always fulfilled, despite the fact that we hear them loud and clear and we see their pain, we cannot give them more than we are giving ourselves.
I don’t believe it is our inability to relate to others’ problems or lack of care for them that is the cause of lack of empathy. I believe the reason that so few people are truly empathic is because the majority are busy trying to fulfil their own needs (the need for recognition), which prevents them from giving to others.
There isn’t one easy solution other than to say that unless we learn to fulfil our basic needs in a sustainable and not only momentary way, not only will we not be empathic and understanding enough to build true connections with others, we will actually also never be truly happy.
Fulfilling Our Needs
A good friend who is also a true heartfelt giver, a great contributor to the society and the world, when asked what allowed her to do all this amazing work she does, said that "there is nothing at the ego level that she has to fulfil anymore".
Those words played on my mind for a very long time until I came to my own realisations. The thing is that we all have those ego driven needs also known as basic needs, that we strive to fulfil.
Those needs overshadow the truly ‘good work’ and contribution we can or could be bringing into the world. Those basic needs emerge out of nowhere in the least desirable moments and show up like a gremlin who disturbs mindful connection and nags us until we give him what he wants.
But stroking ego is not the only way. In fact that is not the way at all. Going out there into the world in search for recognition, fishing for complements is not sustainable. It gives momentary release but the gremlin will always return.
The only true way to fulfil those needs (which we all have) and to live a life of purpose, give to those who need us and our help, be present at the right times with others but also for ourselves, to feel truly alive- the only way to achieve all that is to find a way to fulfil those needs in a positive way – by means of giving, and not taking. And that is true empathy.
Are you keen to learn how to?
Are you keen to learn how to live a fulfilled life where despite having your needs, you feel whole, energised, have a sense of joy and connection rather than constant strive for more, feeling anxious and stressed, feeling never enough?
I regularly work with clients helping them a) identify what their core basic needs are b) identify ways of fulfilling them in a life-enriching way. Get in touch with me.