on empathy and compassion

Nurturing Relationships with Empathy and Compassion

We are now deep in the midst of this coronavirus pandemic. At first, it may have seemed surreal and imaginary, but as the weeks and months go by, it becomes more and more realistic and our new normal is changing our lives like nothing ever has before. Some are on the front lines, while others have an easier job... and that job is to simply stay at home. Either way, the basic human emotions of empathy and compassion have come to the forefront during this unprecedented time, allowing us to unite and look toward one common goal -- survival. We are working together toward physical, emotional and economic survival.

I started thinking about the qualities of empathy and compassion recently, and let my mind delve a little more thoroughly into how these two qualities are the same, and how they differ. And also how these qualities seem to be innate in most people, but yet there are those who seem not to possess them at all. Why is that, I wondered.

Empathy can be defined as the capacity to understand or feel what another being is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another's position. Empathy can lead to compassion - which is the desire to want to help to relieve the suffering of another person. Most humans (and even some animals) are hardwired to be empathetic, but there are exceptions. So, what causes a lack of this basic human emotion? There could be several reasons. A person lacking empathy may have been raised in a family who avoided or discouraged getting in touch with one’s feelings. Family members may have been condemned or ridiculed for expressing their feelings, sending the message that their feelings weren’t valid or important. Those who learned early in life to shut down to such a degree that they cannot feel their own feelings most likely will not develop the capacity to relate to or feel other people’s feelings. The good news is that in many cases, if such individuals are open to change, they can work on cultivating empathy and compassion by consciously choosing to retrain the brain. We actually can create new pathways in the brain -- resulting in new patterns and new ways of behaving. This is actually the main premise behind hypnotherapy. Another path toward nurturing empathy is to find ways to cultivate mindfulness and self-awareness. This can be done through meditation, yoga practice, and other modalities that serve to quiet the mind and allow self-reflection. The more in touch we are with our own emotions, the more capable we are of being in touch with the emotions of others. Since empathy is important in building all relationships, whether they be professional, social, romantic, parental or political, it is in the best interest of all of us to enhance our skills in that area. A few more tools that could be used to cultivate empathy might be: Consciously working on listening skills so that we actually hear what the person is saying, allowing them to express themselves without interruption. Working toward being non-judgemental - listening without judgement or criticism in an attempt to understand the other person’s perspective. It doesn’t mean that we have to agree with it -- It’s just an awareness that the person has a different point of view. Reflect, so that we are clear about what the other person is attempting to say...“I think I’m hearing you say…..” When actively listening, putting aside our own thoughts without mentally preparing for a response. The focus should be on the other person. Using positive affirmations...they are very powerful and when used regularly can become one’s reality. An appropriate positive affirmation to help to enhance empathy might be “May I express warmth, love and affection”. Or you might consider a positive affirmation directed toward the other person. “May (name) be happy, healthy and whole”. “May (name) enjoy inner peace and ease.” All of that said, there are situations where a blatant lack of empathy and compassion can be the result of more serious disorders such as narcissism or antisocial personality disorder, in which case change can be more challenging, if not impossible. People in these categories can be mean spirited and have no remorse for hurtful things that they do to others. But that is a more complex subject …..so more on all of that later. For now, may you all live with peace, well-being, empathy and compassion….and may you be happy, healthy and whole. Love, Bijali