In every dark tunnel there is a ray of hope; every night ends in sunrise. Empathy is a force like light and hope for humanity. I write a lot about narcissism and the doom of our civilization into selfishness. But, what about hope? The human capacity for empathy brings me hope everyday. When I see a child turning toward the suffering of another child and offering to help, it shows me what humanity is truly capable of.
The roots of narcissism come down to an excessive focus on the self. Empathy is the antidote to narcissism or excessive self-focus. Empathy is the ability to feel the other person we are with and to understand their experience from the other’s position. No matter what the situation is, accessing empathy will nearly always help the situation flow better.
Empathy is an underrated skill. Spiritual teachers such as Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, and so many others have been talking about it for ages. Carl Rogers first brought significant scientific attention to empathy in his seminal article Empathic: An Unappreciated Way of Being. The field of humanistic psychology brought empathy to the forefront as a relational value.
Empathy in Parenting and Families
Empathy is wonderful for parenting. Your children start out little and grow bigger overtime. Do you remember what it was like to perceive the world from a 5-year old body or a 10-year old body? We often forgot just how being small changes things. The world is so much bigger when we are small. The result of our actions on our children is profoundly impactful. When we parent with empathy as the focus, the children’s wants, needs, and desires feel included. It’s so much easier to create a family that truly works for everyone when using empathy as the way of relating.
It’s not just the parents that need to practice empathy. Empathy can also be wonderful for siblings to practice with each other. A lot of the cruelty in families comes from the sibling rivalry between the older and younger siblings. When siblings think about how their other sibling feels, this creates more harmony. Particularly when the older sibling treats the younger sibling with this kind of empathy, profound change can occur within the family. Also, when the children practice empathy with the parents, this creates an even more unified and cohesive family.
Empathy in Romance
Romantic relationships are one of the most challenging areas for most adults. We often struggle to put ourselves in the shoes of our spouse or significant other. About 50% of the marriages in the United States end in divorce, according to Wilkinson and Feinburg. Long before divorce happens, couples usually get into oppositional stances where they are not able to understand each other. Divorce is not wrong. Some relationships are not meant to last. Yet, I do believe empathy is possible at every stage of the relationship, even when disagreeing. If we were able to bring empathy into any relationship, it would set it up for potential success. And, if the relationship needed to end, the parties could more easily mutually agree on the details of parting from one another.
Put yourself in your partner or spouse’s shoes as often as possible. How do they experience life? How do they experience you? How do they want you to treat them? When we ask these types of questions, it begets more empathy in the connection. When there’s empathy, it’s easier to work through challenges as they arise.
Empathy in Business
Traditional companies work well for the leadership and management, but not for the lowest level employee. Most businesses exploit their workers to profit off of their work. When a business leader works out of empathy, their whole team becomes much happier. An empathic leader wants the workplace to truly work for everyone. This approach in business can transform some of the negative aspects of capitalism. This way a whole company can be aligned with each other and work for the common good.
Empathy can also be given to your fellow coworkers. When you work alongside someone else, it’s good to put yourself in their shoes. An empathic workplace is excellent for everyone. It’s not just up to the leadership to make this happen. Anyone can create more empathy at work by simply practicing being a better person to everyone you come in contact with at work.
Empathy on the Road
Driving is so much easier when we use empathy on the road. These days, many people are on their phones and not paying attention to their driving. When someone does something unconscious while driving, it’s good to honk at them to keep everybody safe. We don’t need to use toxic rage to get up in people’s face for their stupidity. Certain people who drive with narcissistic tendencies seem to think they can do no wrong driving. These people are very condemning and attack others, making driving harder for everyone. We must understand that we are not going to be able to reach these people by raging back at them. I have found that the key to accessing your own potential for empathy in these cases is to remember that the driver that goes off at you for no or very little reason is most likely very hard on themselves. This helps me soften into my own self love rather than responding to their rage with my own indignation.
Empathy with Annoying People
Everywhere we go there are people who annoy you. It may be the tone of a person’s voice or the way a person is thoughtless or inconsiderate. Whatever it is that bothers you about people, you are sure to come into contact with someone who annoys you. The first step is to always have empathy for yourself and let yourself feel whatever you feel about these people with acceptance. Next, put yourself in their shoes and experience what it is like to be them.
Often people who are annoying to me have a level of self-judgment or self-hatred that’s hard to be around. When I realize this is what I find annoying, I have more compassion for them. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we all have some self-hate in us. I know first-hand from my own experience of hating myself how difficult it can be.
Empathy with Extreme Cases
Empathy is one of the skills I practice most. I spend every day deepening my ability to “do empathy” with others. While I’m skillful at empathy, I can always learn more about it. Every interaction I have with someone is an opportunity to learn new aspects of life. I have learned that everyone I come into contact with perceives life from a slightly different vantage point (and some are dramatically different).
I believe in the power of unconditional love to help all of humanity. To truly love someone we must first understand them. Without empathy we can not have understanding. I believe we have to use empathy with even the most extreme cases in order to cultivate love on this planet. I do not approve of or condone molestation, torture, rape, or murder. However, I do believe the human beings who engage in these actions still deserve our empathy and understanding. This doesn’t mean we don’t give appropriate consequences to protect people from further harm. However, it does mean that anyone who engages in these behaviors is suffering in some way and needs empathy, unconditional love, and support.
The folk singer, Phil Ochs, wrote the song “There But For a Fortune.” This song taught me so much about empathy. He sings a song about a homeless person, someone in jail, and the country at war. It helped me deepen my understanding of truly taking the other person’s position and feeling their situation from inside. The more difficult the person is, the harder this has been.
Empathy With People Who have Murdered
Everyone has the capacity to murder. Most of us have considered this option in moments of extreme heartbreak or betrayal. For me, several romantic relationships and a couple of business relationships have brought me to the place where I understood why people kill each other. Someone who crosses this line and acts on these impulses changes their life forever. When you’ve killed someone, it seems there’s a tremendous amount of guilt in the heart and soul of anyone who has taken another’s life. Shakespeare explored this in the way murder hung like an albatrose around the heart and soul of Lady Macbeth and ultimately drove her crazy. I believe anyone who has murdered feels the affects of this in some respect. We can not take the life of another without it bearing some impact on our own soul.
Empathy with People Who Have Raped
Rape is about power. When someone rapes another person, they take this person sexually against their will. It’s not so much about sexuality typically, it’s a demonstration of power. Rapist only rape because they feel powerless. When we use empathy, even with people who have raped, we can better understand them. Not only can empathy help us to better understand the motivations of rape, but it has the power to transform our culture to arrive at a point where this behavior no longer exists.
Often men who rape feel rejected by women. By raping a woman, they are attempting to take back this power. The woman can’t reject them because they are saying I don’t care; I will take what I want anyway. Woman can rape as well as gender fluid people, but rape is still predominatly a male phenomena. Rape can only come from deep emotional wounding. I believe no one is born a rapist, just like no one is born a murderer. When we use empathy with both victims of rape and perpetrators of rape, then we can strive to end this whole divide. Perpetrators of rape need empathy too! Only hurt people would ever engage in rape. Healthy people don’t rape, murder, torture or mollest others.
Empathy with People Who Have Molested Children
Children are innocent. Most child molesters were themselves molested. They are drawn to the children’s innocence and attracted to this way of being. There’s a sensuality that is a part of human nature which children possess. Child molesters are typically compelled to act on this urge. Child molesters have a problem and need help. It’s like a disease that gets passed on through trauma. We must seek to understand this disease with empathy, and not simply condemn it but instead work for the healing of it. This way we can create a world that is no longer plagued by molestation and incest.
Empathy with People Lost in Narcissism
Narcissism is a buzz word in these times. So many people accuse other people of being narcissists. Some of this may be accurate and some may just be part of the selfish judgments we use to blame others around us. Those who are truly narcissists are sick with a psychological disorder in which they can not perceive themselves honestly. We all have tendencies towards narcissism. I believe that when narcissists are met with empathy and boundaries, it is ideal for their awakening. It’s so important that we use both these boundaries, as well as the empathy, in our dealing with narcissists. We don’t want to allow ourselves to be manipulated by them; and it’s important that we don’t close our hearts in hatred of them either. All people have goodness and innocence in them somewhere inside.
Through practicing empathy with everyone everywhere we become carriers for this new way of serving unconditional love. Have you ever experienced a truly hard time when you felt completely stuck and you received empathic support from another? Empathy feels amazing, much like a religious sense of grace as in the song “Amazing Grace.” Empathy is a ray of light in the darkness. It is a lightness when everything in the soul feels heavy. When empathy is as common for humanity as breathing, we will have a truly empathic and loving society.
It is my belief that we will only benefit from empathy. Perhaps this is one day something we can all agree on no matter what religion, political persuasion, gender, or any other differentiating feature.
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