This is probably my favourite topic and I feel like I could talk about empathy for hours!
The reason why I am so interested in empathy is because I think it’s the best quality someone can have and it’s a cure for so many social problems and world issues. Empathy can reduce conflict between people, build more meaningful relationships, improve mental health (by turning it towards ourselves), and help us plan services for our communities.
So, what is empathy? To me, being empathetic means truly accepting another person’s perspective and not judging them for it, even if you might not be able to understand, relate to, or agree with it. It means fully putting yourself in their shoes by thinking about all of the life situations/circumstances they’ve been in, their mental health issues, their support networks (or lack thereof), and all of the things in their life that have led up to them being the person they are now.
By practicing empathy, we are so much better equipped to support other people! I find that we often get angry or hurt because someone acts a certain way or treats us a certain way and we either take it personally (feel hurt) or judge their behaviour. Instead, we can use empathy to look at their situation and think “hey, maybe that person has been through some sh!t. We all have! Maybe she wasn’t treated well by her partner and that’s the only model she has of how people treat each other and is why she’s treating me this way”.
Have you ever thought that you just couldn’t understand how someone did something? Maybe you thought what they did was mean, or bad, or even wrong? I’m often shocked when I hear people describe a conflict with another person and how unable they are to see the other person’s side! It’s like anger blinds us and we immediately become self-protective. Have you ever been cancelled on by a friend? It sucks! We can easily come up with reasons to blame them for how we feel. And we can’t change how we feel about it but we can change how we react to it. With empathy, we don’t get mad at the friend but instead ask if they are ok or give them some time. Maybe you’ll discover they have anxiety and were having a really triggering day! Another example could be seeing a kid stealing. Think about how that kid may have been homeless from a young age and feared for their safety and survival on the streets and thus their only means of obtaining food to keep themselves alive was to steal! By being empathetic you have a greater capacity to understand and accept people’s actions because you can understand that, if in their position, you may have done the same.
But, how can being empathetic and understanding the reason behind actions change the world? Well, I think it’s the preventative power empathy has. By this I mean that if we all practiced having a bit more empathy, some tragic events could be avoided in the future.
Think about a kid that grew up in a not so great environment. Maybe his parents had drug problems, so he developed them as well. Or maybe he had mental health issues that he never got support with because his family was preoccupied. This kid grows up and his addiction and mental illness grows and leads him to steal, get in fights, or break things. Let’s say you’re his teacher, youth worker, parent or friend, and you just can’t understand why he would do something like that! You say “I don’t get how you could do such a thing” or “you’re a bad kid for doing that”. This could make him feel like people don’t understand him and that he doesn’t fit in to society or that people think he’s just a bad kid. Would he not then feel like people can’t relate to him? Would he not act upon the title of being a “bad kid” because he’s already been labelled as one? He may start a negative cycle where he gets less and less support and feels more and more marginalized and may end up committing worse and worse crimes. He may eventually feel so removed, unsupported, and angry with the world that he ends up hurting other people. Consider the multiple school shootings that have occurred in America.
It’s a heavy subject, but think about how we tend to “give up” on kids (or adults) like this. We can’t relate to them so we think something is wrong with them and they can’t be helped. But really, they’re not helpless! They need the most help! They need support to address the negative things that have happened in their lives and move forward towards a fulfilling life! We need to try to understand them so we can give them hope to break their cycle.
When you look at the whole picture of someone’s life, you’re more able to understand their actions. I think we need to understand that what we all need from each other is help and support, not punishment and criticism. These are the things we can provide our friends, kids, and families with that have the power to make us all feel more connected and capable!
I’d also like to mention that I’m not saying people don’t do bad, unforgivable things. I don’t think you need to allow people to hurt you or others or that major tragedies are forgivable. What I am saying is that we all have the power to lower the incidences of such events in the future. By getting to the root causes of behaviours we may be able to provide those who feel marginalized get support before they feel the need to do such things.
Whenever you’re in communication with another person, remember the secret power of empathy. You never know if something seemingly meaningless you said to someone is a trigger for them, so never judge how they react. You don’t know if someone has been hurt too many times to trust you. You don’t know whether or not someone is rude to you because they’ve recently lost someone they love. You’ll never know what’s going on behind the scenes in someone’s life so why not give them the benefit of the doubt and try to connect with them. Be kind. I think we need to go into our daily lives thinking that we’re all fighting individual battles and we’re all just humans who have the ability to make each other’s lives a little better.
Thanks for reading,