Friday, June 28, 2013

Empathy and anger

This week I heard a few stories that struck me. First, over the weekend I had a close friend tell me about an argument she had with her mom. She had yelled at her, and said some nasty things. Then she said to me, "I'm mad. Empathize with THAT."*

A few days later I heard another story on the news, about a gang war in New York City. A boy was murdered in a drive by shooting, and one gang took the credit on a video on youtube. In the video they rapped and sang and said, "Put yourself in my shoes, wouldn't you be angry too?"

What both of these stories have in common, to me, is that they are about overreacting to anger. When I get angry, I know I react in strong ways - sometimes I hurt people. Sometimes I act stupidly and hurt myself (stubbing my own toe in anger is something I've done more than once. Ow.) Although these stories are very different, I also believe that both people were asking the listener for something, too. "I'm mad" they say, "so you should be mad too." I think they are asking me to say what they did was all-right. To me, that's going beyond empathy.


When a person asks you to 'empathize' with them, they say that they want you to KNOW how they feel. "If you only knew how I was feeling!"

I believe that the point is to try to be in their shoes - but maybe I won't actually get there. The point is not to justify their behavior, but just to listen. Empathy helps me to remove judgments, and to learn about how others live and survive in this world. Ultimately it helps me to be there for another person. Hopefully I can help them feel like they are not alone.

If I had a chance to talk to this rapper boy in this gang, maybe I could ask him about how he felt that day. If they say they were angry, I can feel angry too and I can bring up those feelings when I talk to them. I can try to feel what they feel. I can try to not say the words, "what you did was justified."

Have you tried to listen to someone recently? Have you been there for someone in need? How did it go?


* For my friend's sake, I did try to listen to what she was saying. I commented about how it sounded like she was really mad (trying for empathy). My next sentence was something like, "yeah, well, and I see what she did and why it made you mad." In hindsight, I don't think that what I said was good - I was essentially justifying their bad behavior. Hopefully next time I can keep my mouth shut, or figure out how to say something better.. :)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Empathy - moments in friendship

I have found that since starting this process that my experiences are not the large, life changing experiences I had at the beginning. Instead I've found that by reviewing my days I can find little moments of empathy where I try to make the best choices I can.

Empathy Moment - secrets and friends

I've got a few people in my life who I'm not close to, but I would like to be close to. I'm doing my best to build a friendship with each of them and empathy often plays a role.

This week one of these want-to-be-friends of mine revealed something about himself that I didn't previously know. It was a secret - and a big one. Something he'd been hiding from me intentionally.

At first, I reacted with feelings. Feelings of betrayal (how could you NOT tell ME FIRST!!!) feelings of low self-worth (don't you LIKE ME?!?). Etcetera, all of the normal stuff that arises before I have a chance to think about it.

Then I tried to put myself in their place. I remembered what I knew about this person. He calls himself  'closed off' and 'restrained'. He keeps his thoughts and feelings close and rarely lets people in.

Thinking about this reminded me of the way I used to feel about wearing clothes. I used to think that if I dressed in loose clothing, nobody would judge me for how my body looked. If they couldn't see it, I reasoned, they couldn't judge it. Lately I've realized that people will judge me based on exactly what they see, on exactly what I show them. If I show them baggy, hiding clothes then maybe they will judge me as a person who had something to hide.

Although I've made the conscious choice to be more open than I've ever been, I do remember what it felt like to hide behind baggy tee-shirts. It felt safe, and it felt like I wasn't going to be judged.

So I choose not to judge him for his choices. I left myself with the space to be there for him, and to step away from my selfishness. 

And I hope we can be closer in the future.

Are you more open, or closed? Who are you drawn to being friends with?


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Everyone is Awesome and I Shouldn't Judge Them

Back in January, I wrote this post about building empathy with people. I talked about how keeping a mantra in mind, such as 'I love you, man' really made it easier to care about other people. This worked particularly well for strangers I just met, people I didn't know at all.

Earlier this week I had another thought that I think builds on this idea. If I love someone, a friend or a relative for example, I wouldn't judge them based on their appearance. If they looked good, I was happy for them. I've noticed that sometimes, when I see another person who's appearance is different from mine, I confess I've had thoughts of either judgement or jealousy. Instead of looking past what I was seeing (which is what I would do if I truly loved them, as a friend or a relative) I would be focusing on it.

This never happens with friends or relatives; just with people I don't know. People walking down the street or strangers at a party. For friends or relatives, I don't immediately judge them. I simply note it and move on, because I love them.


Of course, now that I see the behavior I'm trying to fix it. For the last week I've been consciously attempting to not judge people I don't know based on their appearance. I'm using two different 'tools' to accomplish this.


Tool #1 - Simpler; I don't talk about what a person is wearing.

When meeting a stranger, the way a person looks can tell you a lot about them. I'm looking at what they wear, their weight, their skin color, their apparent gender, their clothing appearance (shabby or pressed), their jewelry. I look. In the past, I have even used what a person is wearing to open up a conversation with "Oh, what a lovely necklace". I'm consciously trying to stop all of that by opening up every conversation with something NOT related to their looks.

It's hard but it seems to be working - it helps me to focus on what the person introducing us is saying like, "oh, have you met Bob, he's my friend from Georgia." or "Hi I'm Pamela I'm here with Manny from the city." By staying focused on them as a person and not on what they are wearing (good or bad), I can distract myself from looking at and therefore thinking about their appearance.

Here's a great article I read recently on an example of this, talking about approaching little girls and NOT immediately complimenting them on how cute they are.

Tool #2 - Focus on how amazing the person is.

Everyone, all people in this world (no matter how fantastic their life is) are facing some kind of challenge in their lives. We all hurt. Also, we all are reminded regularly how much pain and suffering there is in this world. I find it amazing that each day we can put that all aside and live, and survive, and even thrive. I look at everyone and think that we are all just awesome people for managing this crazy thing we call life. We are all finding ways to meet challenges - from the horrors of war to the challenges of just getting out of bed in the morning.

You are amazing. Yes you, the person reading this blog post. You are awesome!

Just for you being you - it's TIME TO DANCE!!!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Truth; failure to listen

The other day I interacted with two different people. Let's call them Katie and Rudy. Both were strangers, and both were with me only for a short time on the same day (but at different times). When I met Katie, I noticed that she was open, chatty and friendly. We engaged in conversation for a good long while. She told me about her life, I told her about mine. We gave each other advice.

Later that day I met Rudy. Rudy was also a stranger, but I noticed right away that she was more distant than Katie. She avoided making eye contact, she answered my casual questions and then shut down, and pretty much did everything another person can do to end a conversation politely.

I had so much fun interacting with Katie that when I met Rudy I wanted the same kind of fun. I didn't know how to react to this different persona, so I pushed myself at her. I tried asking her questions, I tried starting up new topics, I tried telling her about myself in the hopes of drawing her in. Nothing seemed to work.

After Rudy walked away, I jumped to the conclusion that either she didn't like me (hey, it's possible) or just didn't want to connect. I tried to figure out what was wrong with her, "Maybe she was having a bad day." or "Maybe she was simply not feeling conversational." I was only thinking about what she was doing wrong. Etcetera.


For those of you who've read my blog before perhaps you see where this is going. I'm sure there was nothing wrong with Rudy, or if there was, that wasn't the issue at hand. The problem was me. I wasn't paying attention to Rudy at all; I wasn't empathizing with her. Katie made talking to so, so easy that when confronted with Rudy I forgot that I needed to do actual work. It takes effort to be empathetic; it rarely comes naturally. Instead of listening, I was caught in the trap of simply talking AT her. In hindsight I remember that people don't want to be talked AT. If they want to be talked AT they will go home and watch the news.

I find it so hard to remember sometimes how to keep the focus on empathy when interacting with people. It's been my experience so far that most people do want to connect, but they need a reason. They need to believe that they will be heard and that they will be listened to - and I wasn't listening.

It's so, so important to listen.

So I'm sorry Rudy and anyone else I may not have listened to enough. I'm going to keep trying harder to open my ears instead of my mouth.