My Introduction to Empathy

This can be a touchy subject for most people, neurodivergent or not. Shame and stigma has been attached to empathy issues. Pain is often attached to introspection of empathetic capability, but healing is never comfortable.

I’ve struggled with empathy from a very young age, and for most my life I didn’t care that I didn’t understand people and they didn’t understand me. Unfortunately comfort with low empathy can easily lead to apathy. The two are entirely different things. Apathy implies a lack of care, apathy is blatant ignorance and a disregard for the external world. If you have low empathy or no empathy you aren’t evil and you’re not inherently cruel, mean or cold, but being unable to feel others’ emotions or see from other perspectives can cause one to stop caring about the feelings and perspectives of others. Reality narrows and your values may skew, even though you desire to be a loved, trusted, kind person and be treated with the respect you deserve— lack of empathy leading to apathy can cause you to shut out the world and put out negative energy or treat others unfairly. Anyone can fall prey to this, regardless of mental health or if you’ve been diagnosed with anything or have any trauma. 

I do believe everyone at any empathy level should actively learn about and practice empathetic skills for their sake and for the people around them. If you feel you have high empathy you will have moments of low empathy too, especially if you overestimate yourself. People also sometimes pass off callous and rude behaviour as part of a personality, neurotypical and neurodivergent people alike. Don’t overestimate or underestimate yourself, you are a nuanced human. 

I’m speaking from my own experience as someone who forced themself to learn empathy, from my perspective of disability. If you believe you may have a mental, developmental, or neurological disability please seek resources as soon as possible, there’s free support online and offline. It’s easier to navigate getting to a more comfortable way of living with support. I’ve been in therapy for near a decade now and I’m still progressing through recovery but every step forward/three steps backward, I’ve found lifesaving skills and milestones I didn’t think possible.

In your everyday life, though, you can work on yourself and learn how to afford energy to spend on personal growth. Every time you spend energy on interpersonal or emotional skills, you’re building your core energy and your capacity for growth. If you think you’re struggling with empathy, you need to learn to be communicative to the people in your life. Learn how to describe and convey how you feel and struggle— write your thoughts out and create a dialogue with yourself so you can convey these emotions to others. Communication can be extremely difficult for many people. I was a traumatized autistic child who was unsupported in social development, it took most of my life to learn how to open up and interact authentically with other people. I kept myself shut in. I could study how to be casual or what tendencies made me awkward, could try to patchwork together charisma, but without valuing communication and empathy, I was going nowhere.

Ask for help understanding other points of view. Learning from someone with high empathy helped me understand the intricacies of empathy. The concept is not an enigma, nor is it as complicated as we think. Personality disorders, autistic spectrum disorder, dissociative disorders, even anxiety and depression can impact empathy. How you’re raised can impact empathy. The media you consume can impact empathy.

You should never be made to feel guilty or wrong or bad for struggling with empathy, low empathy is a common issue in a complex and apathetic society filled with unique individuals. No one should shame you for symptoms of a disorder or the way you’re personality has been built via nature and nurture, but guilt stemming from actions that hurt people due to empathy issues is a sign you’re unhappy with how you’re living and treating people. Not having empathy isn’t an excuse to hurt people, and non-empathetic people can treat people with kindness, just as empathetic people can as easily be unkind or abusive. It’s a matter of self awareness, an high empathy person who isn’t self aware can still be toxic, just like a low empathy person can be, and a self aware low empathy person can also be as compassionate and kind as a self aware empathetic person. 

Sometimes, it feels easier to resign yourself to being apathetic than to acknowledge the fact that you could be doing more to train skills and to acknowledge areas you could grow in. It’s easier to assume the pain caused by the empathy issues is unavoidable.  However, you don’t need to feel empathy to listen when people bring up harmful or toxic behaviours.

It does take energy to advance empathy and self awareness skills, and they say it costs nothing to be kind, but when it’s difficult to understand when you’re being unkind, it does take plenty of energy. The healing energy in exchange for practicing compassion towards others is worth the down payment. You learn self compassion too, and empathy toward yourself when it comes to complicated emotions you might struggle to identify. 

People may say you are incapable of empathy but that’s a narrow view of what empathy is capable of. If you can learn to identify the emotions in yourself and identify them in other people you can D.I.Y empathy. No one is incapable of trying. Anyone can grow. Anyone can want to be kind and be kind, and be understanding. Wanting to want is the first step. Empathy is a spectrum and flux. If you have no empathy or low empathy, average or high empathy, that doesn’t mean you will always be this way. 

Lately I’ve been trying to apply philosophy to my opinions on empathetic growth, using values and what I believe in to spur motivation to grow, something called maxims. There are simple expressions of morals, such as adages stemming from religious golden rules- treat others how you want to be treated. Maxims are a purely secular concept though, simply ways to concisely convey a personal belief or way of living. Discovering what you value will help motivate you to progress in recovery and learn interpersonal skills even when it feels impossible.  

Using maxims to connect your actions to reasons for your actions will also help you identify unwanted behaviours and why you do them. Think about ways you act and present yourself to the world that align with your values, and think about ways your actions go against what you believe in. 

Identifying your own emotions and understanding them, understanding your insecurities and areas you could grow, will help you. I always thought I was trying everything within my abilities, working with what my brain, soul, and body has given me, but no one can truly know their own capabilities especially when their needs aren’t being properly met. I had to learn how to understand myself.

I began reading about empathy from a philosophical perspective because I think learning diverse opinions and experiences are key to growing empathetically. It doesn’t take academia, things like reading blogs or simply listening to people you respect and what they value will help. Learning other perspectives will help you look beyond your own. Learning about other people helped me understand myself, what I needed, and what things I could change.

While it may seem that you only have energy to focus on yourself sometimes, it’s worth it to practice paying attention to the people in your life. We are all interconnected, our energy flows through each other and through the world around us. What you feel capable of in a day, week, month, will ebb and grow in an inconsistent fashion. Predict but don’t limit your energy. 

There are simple and non-exhaustive ways you can start thinking about your empathy and how you can grow it. Here’s an exercise you can start with:

Think about a person in your life, someone you’ve interacted with in some way or another. If you’re feeling very isolated it may take a moment to think of someone, but try to ignore negative thoughts for a moment and narrow in. You could also use a memory of a person or interaction.

What has or had their mood been lately? If you struggle to identify it, think about their behaviours, words they say, expressions they make. Think about how you act when you’re in a certain mood, think back to the last time your emotions were obvious and clear, what were you doing/saying? It’s good to start trying to connect behaviour and expression to emotion.

Now, what’s been going on in their life that may be affecting their mood? What have they been complaining about? Boasting about? Think about things they’ve mentioned in passing about how they’re doing, what they’re doing. Thinking about other people’s lives isn’t always something we do on a day to day basis, it’s easy to become wrapped up in our own struggles.

On that note, it’s time to think about how you are contributing to their mood. What have you said in casual conversation, or reacted to something they’ve told you? How have aspects of your life affected theirs? We may not realize it sometimes, but we don’t exist in our own universe one hundred percent of the time. Everyone’s lives intertwine and bleed into each other. Cause and effect, degrees of separation, butterfly effect, we exist in each other’s lives. It’s easier to exist with compassion. What could you do or say to improve their situation? Could you comfort them? Praise them? Validate them?

We want to interact with others with authenticity, and it can be difficult to realize that to be compassionate and authentic, you have to identify what parts of you are standing in the way. What questions come up for you when thinking about how you could improve a person’s life in some small way? 

Why should I? What would I get in return? Sometimes statements pop up: I don’t owe them anything. I don’t have the time or energy. I can’t do this. I don’t want to. They haven’t helped me, I don’t have to help them. Their situation isn’t worth my time. 

Try not to take these statements as facts or things you truly believe, but don’t shame or invalidate them either. These are thoughts product of many things, often from putting pressure on vulnerable places in your inner world. Try to stay open minded to yourself and the exercise. Defensiveness is a natural reaction to stress but it doesn’t rule you or represent you, it’s a reaction. How we proceed after identifying it is key to learning empathy.

Compassion is medicine. It’ll heal you, teach you. In return for opening up your heart and learning to think of other people and of yourself, you’ll advance in recovery and live with at least a little more peace. Words like worth and owe should be turned into positives, you owe it to yourself and the people in your life to gain confidence through positivity and openness— it’s worth it to believe in yourself and look for reasons to want to. Getting through your personal hurdles has to be a customized thing, taking into account what you value and want to get out of life, and what things are working against you. Keeping a journal and continuing a dialogue with yourself, identifying problematic or destructive thinking, and documenting your journey in self reflection will help you see your own patterns. 

I found my dissociative symptoms were causing trouble when speaking face-to-face with others, derealization, depersonalization, even mild amnesiac dissociation. This struggle to connect with anything, the world or myself, made effective communication near impossible. It’s important to learn how to ground yourself— for many there’s no way to fully connect in this moment, or the next, maybe the connection will come and go or maybe lucidity is entirely what you need to focus on first— but everyone’s first step needs to be made. What do you think will help you feel real? A certain texture? A meditation? A cognitive therapy? A certain smell? We’re all different. Traumatized, bipolar, schizophrenic, schizoaffective, the alphabet of personality disorder clusters, neglected, isolated, dissociative identity disorder, sensory processing disorder, the list goes on, and every person of any kind of brain has a personality and a pattern of behaviour that has been warped or spawned by the reality they’ve lived. Our first and next steps will all be different. I won’t assume what your reality is or how you relate to yourself or the world around you. You have to want to connect before you can move forward though. What makes you want to feel connected and present? 

After I learnt to start to ground myself with therapy, medication, and meditation (all which have been free for much of my life, and when the first two weren’t and I couldn’t afford it, meditation and google worked things out) I had to start looking at what I could do to make use of feeling grounded. Why practice feeling centered if there’s nothing to be present for?

Dissociation, empathy issues, and other communication problems can be worked on with active listening. This is often framed as an in-person concept but the skill can be applied to text based communication.

Focus your attention on them. In person, gesture that you’re listening while they speak, nod, try to keep your facial expressions reactive. While texting, be prompt in replying and try to respond with interest. Use small interjections like ‘woah’, ‘wow’, and try to be mindful of how you come across. Try to be present and don’t let your mind or attention wander, and don’t change the subject. It can be hard to keep focus on another person, but it’s important in active listening, and crucial in developing interpersonal skills. 

When they speak, repeat what they say back in your own words or ask questions to be sure you accurately understand. This both shows you’re interested and invested in understanding them. You can’t always assume you’re understanding a person correctly because our own bias and perceptions come between our understanding of a person’s truth and their own truth. Be open to being wrong or misunderstanding them, because that’s how you learn. Embarrassment, shame, or anger may arise but remember why you’re practicing these skills. To grow as a person and be more compassionate, understanding, and empathetic. 

Validate their emotions, you don’t have to always agree with their opinion, but acknowledge their right to their feelings. Our lives intermingle, but our minds all have lived entirely different journeys that you must respect. You have a right to feel what you feel and grow from it, as do they. Be sure to hear them out without sarcasm or rejection. Remain mindful of your feelings and if insecurities or judgments come up. It’ll be good to have journaled at this point so you can identify negative or unproductive thoughts. If you notice yourself starting to get angry, worked up, overwhelmed, or self absorbed, take a break to step away from the conversation to ground yourself. Drink some water. Use breathing exercises. Let yourself feel your feelings without judgement or attachment until you feel calmer. Your feelings are just as valid as theirs, but in active listening, we are trying to look beyond our own validity and perceptions and into other people’s.

It’s easy to dwell on feelings of shame or inferiority because of low empathy. However, emotions are extremely complicated and struggling with emotions within yourself and understanding other people is completely reasonable. They say empathy is about putting yourself in other people’s shoes and understanding other people’s experiences, but I’ve realized you don’t have to perfectly feel what other people feel in order to practice compassion and valuing learning other points of view.

Striving for perfection will always be a person’s undoing, as will not trying at all. Motivation, groundedness, giving small amounts of energy one step at a time, in the future I’ll be talking a bit more on self sustainment and managing energy levels. Just be aware of yourself. Try to speak with yourself, establish a relationship with your limits. Let yourself explore resources that might teach you new survival skills for the psyche.

Remember, every single one of us is connected and we all are made of the same stuff. Reach out into the web of individuality, and respect who you are and what you value in life.

Thanks for reading.

2 thoughts on “My Introduction to Empathy

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