My sister and I went to a lecture on Empathy yesterday. It was disappointing. The person giving the lecture basically wrote a paper on his perception of empathy and how he learned to cope with it. I’m not sure that his experiences in life made him qualified to lecture on it and he really was not very good as a lecturer. I thought I would try explaining my perceptions on the subject instead.
I think my husbands reaction when I told him we were going to a class on coping with empathy is a good example of how people think of empathy so let us start with a Google definition:
the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Empathy is not the same as having sympathy and reacting because of it. People who are strongly empathetic do not necessarily become highly sensitive and touchy. If you want to take all emotion out of it and give it a different definition I thin you could say that empathy is the the ability to instinctively know why people are acting and reacting the way they are. Unlike the Doctor who gave the lecture I am not entirely convinced it is something you are born with like some sort of telepathic power. I think it may be a heightened perception of people and their actions coupled with a natural instinct on how to apply it.
All of my life I have watched people and the subtle behaviors that indicate mood and predict their next actions. I think I learned this at a very young age as a self preservation technique. I practiced it consciously and unconsciously for so long that I think I naturally do it now without thought. I can not always tell you how I know someone is lying but when someone lies to me it usually seems incredibly apparent to me and I have trouble understanding why everyone in the room doesn’t suddenly laugh out loud at them. That is a downside of empathy. You start seeing all of the small petty behaviors in other people and in yourself. When someone does something horrible you understand their motivation and how they justify it to themselves. Then you have to question what is wrong with you that allows you to understand that horribleness. It also means that digital communication only works for so long. You need to hear someones voice or see their body language occasionally to reestablish your connection to their actions and reassure yourself on their motivations.
An upside to empathy is that when someone is genuine you feel an immediate trust in them and know that you can relax. Another upside is that I think I naturally get along well with small children. They are transparent and easy to understand for me usually. When I see a child who is not transparent it makes me very uncomfortable. Those are the kids that are in trouble.
I also have to be very careful to not always react to what I think peoples motivations are. Sometimes you have to let things play out on someones plan. One of the things that I have learned that I would have taught had I given the lecture is that you must spend more time thinking about your own motivations and stop and ask yourself before an action or word. Why am I saying this? Is it to push someone else into a reaction to get what I want? Is it to subtly make them feel smaller so that I appear larger? Is it to illicit sympathy and get what I want by manipulation? To use an old fashioned word I try to check myself occasionally and make sure my motivations are noble. Am I thinking about the greater good rather than my own little immediate need. If it is for my own need is it at least not causing harm to anyone else. As long as I can answer that with a yes I’m okay.