Tomorrow is Empathy Day. Most of us like to think of ourselves as empathetic. But is our empathy is as strong as we think? Are we perhaps quite bad at tapping into how people are feeling if they are feeling differently from how we might feel?
Empathy begins with recognising that not everyone’s emotions or thoughts are the same as ours (even if in the same or apparently same situation) and trying to tap into and understand those different emotions and reactions in order to feel something of what others feel. We can never completely do that – true empathy is an impossible goal – but the reasonable goal is to try as hard as possible to get as close as possible.
Let’s take COVID19 and lockdown as a relatively easy example. We may all be in this together but we are going through it differently. We not only have objectively different situations but subjectively different reactions and emotions. We will come to different conclusions about things (such as loosening lockdown or whether it’s right to wear masks) and behave in different ways, depending on many things: what affects us, our vulnerabilities, who we’re worried about, what we’re worried about, where we live, what we have seen, what we need, who we trust and don’t trust, how anxious we are in general, even who we vote for.
Here’s how I’m thinking on Empathy Day
- I am thinking of all of those jobs I’m glad I don’t do and how hard life must be for many of these these people: farmers, fruit and veg pickers and packers, supermarket staff, street cleaners and bin collectors, posties, all the teachers who’ve been in school throughout and those just starting again soon. Frontline health workers, of course. And others I apologise for not mentioning: it must be really demoralising to be ignored.
- I’m feeling for all the people losing money or jobs. For some, this will be terrifying and immensely hard – or maybe impossible – to recover from. I can’t imagine what that must feel like, but I’m trying.
- I’m recognising that many people are having a ‘good lockdown’, able to be at home in sunny weather on full pay. And others are not, for various reasons that are too numerous to mention but which are important to think about. I know I’m one of the lucky ones, used to working from home and able to enjoy some of the advantages of lockdown in a lovely village surrounded by supportive people (and able to chat over the fence to friends).
- I’m distressed for those with serious or terminal illnesses who are suffering so much more because they can’t get treatment or their loved ones can’t be with them. My sister died of cancer last year and I can’t stop thinking how even more awful that would be this year. And some people are going through just that.
- I’m upset for the bereaved and grieving – my brother-in-law who is now working from home and alone 24/7; my nieces who can’t see their father. All the others I know and don’t know.
- I’m sad for my daughter and fiancé and all the others who have had to postpone their weddings.
- I’m thinking about the elderly and vulnerable. My parents, for example, who are dealing with immense difficulty hundreds of miles away.
- I’m worried for those in small flats or bedsits, for those in awful relationships, for those who are in emotional turmoil, who can’t see light in the future.
- I’m thinking of people who are ill. Or angry or sad or terrified or overwhelmed.
- And I’m thinking hard about young people whose mental state was rocky to start with. How must they be now? Actually, many will thrive: don’t assume they’re spiralling downwards. I have read the testimonies of many young people who entered my writing competition (results soon!) and so many are showing great strength and resilience.
All that’s relatively easy: to feel (or try to feel) empathy for everyone struggling with whatever mental, physical, social, economic or job-related problem in this difficult time.
But what about when there’s a politician or public figure we disagree with or dislike? Someone we don’t have to connect to personally. Does our empathy stop short? Do we only feel empathy with
people who fall into the category of ‘people like me’? If your empathy can’t extend to people who are different or who think differently from you, you are like the pre-3yo child who hasn’t discovered Theory of Mind, the knowledge that what is in your mind may not be the same as what’s in mine.
So let’s also think about people in public roles – leaders, politicians, journalists, whether we disagree with them or not. I would not do their jobs for anything. I shudder when I think how hard it must be to deal with the aggressive insults and personal scorn. Let alone threats. What must that feel like? Empathy allows us to access that. Or what about people whose views or lifestyle or personal habits or faith or lack of faith we don’t share or like? Do we ever try to empathise with them? They have loves and losses and consequent emotions, too.
I’d love to see all of us apply our empathy muscle with people we don’t agree with or identify with. It doesn’t mean we have to agree with them or condone outrageous behaviour. But our judgement and our argument become all the stronger and more worthwhile if we have first looked inside their minds and their lives to work out why they thought or said or did what they thought or said or did. And tried to feel what they felt that led them to do or say what they did.
Trouble is, instead so often people just hurl abuse when they disagree. It’s so much easier.
Empathy doesn’t shout; it listens. And when it then speaks, it speaks more powerfully. ‘I hear you but I disagree and here’s why’ is stronger than ‘shut up’.
When you’ve applied empathy, you can still disagree, you can still judge, you can still detest the person’s words or actions, but you will do it more constructively, more articulately and more strongly, because you have tested them against your empathy and you have a handle on where they’re coming from. That’s a powerful tool. They will find it harder to argue against you, then.
Books are a wonderful space to build empathy
Any books about humans, whether factual or made-up, improve empathy. All my non-fiction books do this by revealing fascinating insights into how different human minds work, how our thoughts, feelings and behaviours are affected by circumstances, personalities, stress levels, life experience, support networks, brain stages, biology, chemicals. Blame My Brain is a book which many people tell me defused arguments with their teenagers because it gave them a window into what life is like inside the minds of many adolescents and stopped them blaming them. When you know what someone may be feeling and how that may make them behave, it’s eye-opening and so useful.
Perhaps my book that addresses the behaviours of ‘other people’ (and in doing so ourselves) most directly is The Teenage Guide to Friends. Originally, the title was going to be Ten Things You Need To Know About The Person Sitting Next To You.
I have copies of both to give away! Would you like one? let’s make this easy. The FIRST FIVE people to comment below (excluding spam or abuse!) will receive a copy of whichever one they choose, to be posted to a UK address. FIVE! Then, if there are more than five comments, TWO of the remaining commenters will be picked at random, again to receive the book of their choice sent to a UK address.
That’s SEVEN books to give away to celebrate the power of books to boost empathy!
Meanwhile, check that your empathy is not only reserved for people just like you. That’s too easy. Walking a mile in someone’s shoes that fit you perfectly is no challenge at all.