The Everyday Practice of Empathy
I don’t feel like myself today. I’m not sure why, but the symptoms of a national uprising, racial injustice, and loved ones not understanding the severity or seeking to look at the other side to recognize their frustrations seem to culminate with feeling totally helpless. In recent normal fashion, I turn so social worker and researcher Dr. Brené Brown and her research on shame and empathy to dive into this storm of emotions, reactions, and conversations.
Dr. Brown discusses multiple ways in which empathy is a practiced choice that can be (and mostly is) incredibly vulnerable. It requires us to recognize that we are learners instead of knowers, that we will inevitably fail to connect with some around us and must circle back to truly listen instead of project shame. Although the concept of empathy is often discussed, it is much more difficult to connect its idealist definition to everyday practice. In order to live by its philosophy, it is essential to expound on what it is and more importantly, what it isn’t.
According to the National Association of Social Work, empathy is defined as “the act of perceiving, understanding, experiencing, and responding to the emotional state and ideas of another person.” Countless research has been conducted on the connection that empathy establishes through everyday habits and the endless benefits of its inclusion in policymaking, program development, and relationships.
First, it is essential to recognize that empathy is not finite, and instead, the more we practice it, the more it spreads to those around us. Dr. Theresa Wiseman, an empathy researcher of nursing, and Dr. Kristin Neff, who specializes in self-compassion, discuss empathy as being comprised of four attributes: perspective, practicing non-judgment, understanding, and communication. In order to dive into the everyday practice of empathy as social workers, outdoor professionals, and humans I feel it’s important to dissect each of these elements and their applications.
It is easy to recognize we each come from our own perspective based on our history and experiences when we are not emotionally charged. But when others act in ways we don’t immediately understand, we all inevitably look at events through the lens in which we see the world around us. Often, our first reaction is to blame ignorance. And although we may try as much as possible, it can be impossible to interpret those events through the eyes of another person. This is very difficult to digest for most of us, who like to think of ourselves as compassionate and understanding people. This instead can often get us into trouble. As a white woman, I have never experienced the terror of being pulled over by a cop or heard hushed undertones of discrimination against me. Our point of view, no matter how hard we try, is a product of our personal history, our familial history, and only our own experiences. To be empathetic means to accept that we must often be learners instead of knowers, according to Dr. Brown, Dr. Wiseman, and Dr. Neff. We all have blind spots based on these parts of ourselves, no matter how many documentaries, narratives, or stories we listen to. To just be a listener can often be uncomfortable, but to show authentic empathy is to sit in that discomfort and recognize the ways we can connect through emotions instead of judge or display sympathy in our disconnection.
2. Practicing Non-Judgment
It is nearly impossible to go through our lives without judging others, and those who claim to are often trapped in a thick armor of shame. According to social work research, we can predict the times and ways we are going to judge in two ways: (1) we are most susceptible to judge others in the areas that we most often feel shame or critique ourselves; (2) and even more so towards others who are doing worse in those areas, according to our own perspectives. I was recently watching the Amazon film, Brittany Runs a Marathon, which depicted this perfectly. The main character feels immense shame of her weight, as most of us women can relate to, and projects this onto another person when she is feeling at her lowest. While hating to admit it, I have felt this way in my darkest moments of low self-esteem, shame, and self-pity.
In order to escape the horrendous cycle of judgment, we must recognize areas within ourselves that we feel the most vulnerable. By acknowledging our own struggles, we can quickly raise a red flag when we find ourselves beginning to judge. Does that mean we will stop and be cured of this kind of attitude? Absolutely not. Instead, we can begin taking small steps to be more aware of times when we begin to build armor to seemingly protect ourselves from self-doubt and shame. This also requires an acknowledgement of the first attribute of empathy: understanding our perspective and moving forward with the awareness of our privilege, struggles, and history.
Dr. Neff discusses that our recognition and dissection of our sense of self is essential to define how we present ourselves to others. By practicing this, we are more able to look into another’s viewpoint while also distinguishing the ways in which we can never truly live in their shoes. By continuing to be aware of our implicit biases and our sense of self, a wide array of types of sensitivity is developed, therefore creating a space that empathy can be up upheld. This also allows for each one of us to progress in intrapersonal development and gain a better sense of self.
Although we are taught the power of communication from a very young age, we can so often find ourselves at a loss for words while experiencing deep emotion. If I could count how many times someone asked me, “what’s wrong?” and I answered with “I don’t know”…well there would be a lot of numerical digits. During these times I often couldn’t pinpoint a concrete source, and instead would fall into a spiral that was difficult to explain. Therefore, “I don’t know” made the most sense if I didn’t want to enter the rabbit hole and the leave the questioning or concerned person wide-eyed. I have recently been trying to adjust this conversation by being honest with those I know will listen. In a recent answer to my concerned husband, I didn’t hold back. After about two minutes of a stream of consciousness breakdown that left me in tears, he simply answered: “well there’s a lot to unpack there.” He didn’t try to fix it. He asked clarifying questions to gain a deeper understanding of my feelings and when he didn’t understand, he asked some more. This was empathy. He got things wrong but kept asking. I left feeling supported, loved, and although not understood, relieved.
Empathy cannot thrive if communication fails. It is also the biggest risk and is most likely to cause us to not participate in the practice fully. My husband got things wrong – and I guarantee we all will. He didn’t pretend to fully understand my experience or downward spiral of anxiety because I carry my own history and baggage. To practice authentic empathy means to get it wrong, ask for forgiveness, and try again. This is not possible without connection, which is where the elephant in the room lies – how can we be allies to those who are continually oppressed when we keep getting it wrong?