recipe for extreme empathy

February 10, 2010 at 10:36 pm 2 comments

Nathan and I like to give the girls a lot of freedom with their play, but we do make one request: that they use the word “confused” instead of “evil” or “bad”. It’s a bit awkward, but now their dialog goes something like this: Pretend the confused guy tries to trap the fairy in a cage… Yeah! And then the fairies use their magic and the confused guy’s plan doesn’t work! Bad guy becomes confused guy, evil queen becomes confused queen. We know we are cramping their style, but we want them to lighten their labels a bit to allow room for the character to actually be human and, at least slightly, considered as such. The girls oblige us, even though when playing they aren’t necessarily concerned with human relationships, they are more absorbed in story line. A plot is better served by strict, black and white, unswerving roles, not empathy.

And the girls are right, if you want to be able to torture someone, send them to an ice cave for the rest of their lives, or feed them to alligators, as so often happens in their stories, it really is a good idea to label them as evil, bad, or an enemy, for this makes them less human, less understandable, and certainly less deserving of empathy. It’s the perfect method for building a wall of emotional separation. No country would be able to invade or bomb another country without words like bad, evil, enemy, heathen, communist, or terrorist.

We all do this daily with words like asshole, bitch, and jerk. We quickly brick up an emotional wall, by labeling, to help us deal with people who have treated us unkindly. Then we feel entitled to hurl all the rage we want at them. Or even better than hurling anger, we can dismiss them entirely, for they are no longer a person, they are simply an “asshole”, or a “bitch”. Done.

Under certain circumstances, building an emotional wall by appointing labels, is impractical. Sometimes the person you are calling an asshole is your husband. Or the person you dismiss as a bitch is your mother-in-law. Though it makes for a dramatic plot, it’s difficult to have a worthwhile relationship with an asshole or a bitch. The brick wall doesn’t make for authentic interaction.

In this case switching adjectives, like evil to confused, isn’t going to be enough. A few bricks need to be removed if you are to continue your relationship. The way to do this is with empathy. Which brings us to the question:

Can you have empathy for someone you think is an asshole?

I think you can.

Step one: Look below the “asshole/bitchy” exterior for the feelings that lurk beneath.

Caution. If you are hurt, as most of us are, by the words and actions of an asshole or bitch, the tendency will be to still see things simplistically and inflammatorily. You might make a guess like: He treats me that way because he feels like I am not as smart as him. Or: He feels superior. Or: She’s a bitch to me because she feels better than me, or like I am a waste of her time. This is when you take a quick look here, to remind yourself what a feeling actually is.

Then, you look a little closer.

If you can skirt the tendency to continue demonizing the person, you might be able to identify the feelings inside. It also isn’t easy to see beyond how you are feeling, but if you can, the causal feelings behind a disagreeable behavior are often obvious. If someone is puffed up with importance, or attempting to make you feel stupid, there is a great likelihood that this person actually feels insecure, self-conscious,and/or uncomfortable. If someone is prickly all over and giving you the stink-eye, perhaps they feel envious, vulnerable, and/or jealous.

Suddenly the opportunity for an authentic relationship raises its head once more. For now you are interacting with an insecure, self-conscious guy instead of an asshole, or a vulnerable, jealous woman instead of a bitch. We have all felt these feelings before and it isn’t impossible to find empathy for someone that feels this miserable.

Step two: Know that having empathy for someone is merely a helpful perspective and not an indication that you condone their behavior. Empathy does not excuse actions, or show agreement of any kind.

Step three: Acknowledge that by having empathy for someone that is acting like an asshole you are not doing them a favor.  You are doing yourself a favor. By knocking a chink into the emotional brick wall you have built, you are giving yourself room to breathe, as well as an opportunity to relate to someone that you are in a relationship with.

Step four: Notice that feeling empathy is a perspective not a prescription for action. You may still leave the relationship, you may still hang up the phone, and you may still let the person know that you do not enjoy their behavior. You might do all the things you would have done when they were just an asshole, but your perspective will be different, your emotional space will have grown.

Step five: Enjoy. Mastering this degree of empathy brings great peace.


Entry filed under: empathy, favorites. Tags: , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Joanna Smetanka  |  February 11, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    once again, lovely timing with this post, thanks!

  • 2. kris  |  February 11, 2010 at 8:25 pm

    yes. yes yes.


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