Tag Archive | empathy

Your Non-Standard-Issue Life

You know why you’re not happy? It’s because you only think of yourself.

Sorry, I don’t mean to be cruel – maybe you are happy, and if you are, then there’s also the very real likelihood that it’s because you can think of someone else. It’s been shown that service is one path that leads people to satisfaction with their life (as noted previously, this is not the same as “being useful). It’s also true that for a quick fix, doing things for other people will often increase the oxytocin in your bloodstream, which feels gooooooood.

But even in those situations, you’re still often thinking about things from your own perspective. My family and I have a useful phrase we like: being helpy. That’s when someone has all of the intention of being helpful, but doesn’t quite achieve that – and in fact usually ends up getting in the way. It’s a good way to check in on people who may share the Midwest custom of not bothering to speak up for fear of being impolite, especially when someone is putatively doing something “for” you.

“Ah. You’re being so helpy.” Try it out. It’s kind of like “truthiness“.

What does this have to do with being happy? Bear with me, I’ll get there. Being helpy comes from a lack of finding out what the other person actually needs. Instead, you try to imagine what they need, and provide that. Sometimes you’re right – and you’ve achieved “helpful”! Sometimes you’re wrong, though, especially if you don’t know the person very well, because you are limited by the fact that you can only think of things from your own perspective.

Some people think of empathy as the answer to that, and don’t get me wrong – I’m a big fan of empathy. But there’s a danger of relying on empathy: what happens when it doesn’t work?

What happens when you want to imagine what someone else is feeling, what they are needing, how they are hurting…but you just can’t? Does that simply mean you ignore them? Does that simply mean you are justified in trying something, anything, because at least you “made the effort?”

Nope. Because there’s something even better for understanding other people.

What’s Better Than Empathy?

Brace yourself: the answer is communication.

You ask the other person what they are feeling. What is hurting them. What they need.

I know what you’re thinking: Oh, that’s easy! I do that all the time! I’m a great listener!

Ah, but many people – more and more in this time of internet outrage – forget the other step:

You need to also believe what they tell you.

Yep. That’s right. You need to cultivate the attitude that, like a friend of mine tweeted a while back,

I don’t need to be able to empathize with someone or understand how they could feel a certain something in order to believe them when they tell me.

That means you cultivate the habit of watching for the warning phrases of deliberate ignorance coming out of your mouth or others:

That’s funny. I don’t feel that way.

Well, I don’t see why they don’t just….

You know, if it were me, I would…

Because it’s not your feeling. You can’t see it. And it’s not you.

And there’s a really good reason to cultivate that habit: as noted above, it’s the secret to happiness.

Shooting Yourself In Your Special Snowflake

Statistically, the surest way to be happy is to a) find someone who is similar to you who is happy, and b) do what they do. That’s right: there is no “three.” It’s really as simple as that.

Yet people are still unhappy. Why?

Because they don’t believe the other people.

All of us are conditioned to think – especially when something doesn’t make sense – that we are more different than we really are. Sure, they did that and they are happy – but that wouldn’t work for me. The reality, of course, is that the odds are good that we would be happier if we tried those things…but instead, we allow ourselves to be distracted by shiny outliers and statistical anomalies. “I can be Elon Musk! I can be Kim Kardashian! I can be John Scalzi!

Sure, you could, if along with the ton of work all those people do you were also incredibly lucky.

Or you could set your sights on doing something that may not make intuitive sense, but based on the evidence before you, is worth trying.

Putting My Money Where My Blog Is

Want to come along with me on an experiment? I’m in the process of doing exactly what I’m describing.

See, in looking at various career options recently, I had considered the advice of a friend who said I would make a good “Scrum Master” (I know, even the title sounds strange, go ahead and google it and maybe you’ll understand it better than I did then. Here’s a hint: it has nothing to do with rugby).

I researched it, and thought about it, but in the end I decided that no, I am not the kind of person that would make a good Scrum Master. I decided to start a different kind of training, for graphic recording and graphic facilitation.

The first training I went to, I loved. I was interested, I liked the people, there was resonance and serendipity and connection…and 60% of them were Scrum Masters.

Another 20% of them were Certified Scrum Master Trainers.

And all of them were pretty happy in what they were doing.

Now: I still have my doubts about whether that’s the job path for me. But that’s a failure of my own imagination. The fact is, I don’t know enough about what it’s like to be a Scrum Master to really make an informed decision.

But I have seen a bunch of people who love what I love who seem to be happy doing exactly that thing.

So: in a month, I’ll be starting some Scrum Master training, and you, dear reader, will get to learn whether or not doing the thing that feels wrong but is probably right actually works.

And maybe, just maybe, it’ll help you figure out your own next steps…

Loving the Holidays

This is a rough time for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons.

It’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to be joy, renewal, connection, family, togetherness, giving…but as the Buddhists say, the measure of our misery lies in the difference between the way we think things are supposed to be and the way things are.

For a lot of people, things are not the way they’re supposed to be.

It’s really inescapable; even if you think things are going your way, it’s guaranteed that there is a significant portion of your neighbors whose way it is not going. Divisions between friends, families, and even complete strangers can enrage or depress you or both. The longest, darkest night of the year just passed — and yet, there still seems to be a lot of darkness out there.

You’re Not Fooling Anyone

I’m not going to give some trite analogy like the darkness can be shattered by the flame of a single candle (except oops, I just did). I am not one of those personal-development types who believes that you have to cheer up, think positive, try these affirmations (shudder).

Eewww. Affirmations.

No. Instead, I’m going to say that this is an opportunity for you to love the dark.

I don’t mean the gushy sappy kind of love. I’m talking about the compassionate kind of love, the kind of practice that you give to someone who you know is in a bad way, who you can see doesn’t have any idea how to get out. The sunshiny PollyAnna types would say “here, let’s cheer you up!” or the one I also hate “Let’s distract you!

Sharing the Dark

No, I’m talking about empathic love. The love that sits there in the mess with them, looking around, and agreeing. Yeah. This pretty much sucks. Because when someone is worried about deportation, saying Oh, it’ll be fine! rings kind of hollow. When someone feels bad because they can’t afford presents, that’s not the time to say It’ll get better!

Because if there’s one thing that 2017 has shown us, it is the harsh reality that: it might not.

So instead of trying to trying to deny someone’s experience, show some love by validating it. Wow. That’s rough. Or I imagine that’s no fun at all. If you want to give them a sincere compliment, try something like It’s amazing that you’re not just hiding away.

Unless they are, in which case the line is You’re really smart to hide away like that. Self-care is a great survival trait.

It’s fine to wish people happy holidays. Just keep in mind that for many, it’s not. And that’s ok, too.

Apologizing to the Ones You Love

In my last post I talked about how I was surprised that my friend had apologized to me. It's possible you might get the impression that I follow that silly idea that "love means never having to say you're sorry.

Far from it. Love means that you absolutely say you're sorry – but you have to mean it. Like the word "love" or "fiscal conservative", throwing it around too much without backing it up can cause a loss of meaning. It's a good idea to think about what you actually mean when you say "I'm sorry".

Let's review that, ok?

The Steps of Sorrow

  1. Acknowledge what you did. This is probably the most important part, because it's how you avoid following "I'm sorry" with words like "if" and "but" and "you." We're not talking about hypothetical here, we're not making excuses, and we're talking about you, not the person you're apologizing. The only words that should follow "I'm sorry" are "that I…" Then say what it is you did, in as simple and plain a way as possible. Because you might be wrong, and you may have to talk more before you find out what you actually need to be sorry for.
  2. Acknowledge the damage. This can be as simple as "now the car has a dent in the fender" or as complex as "You don't trust me any more". But especially if this is someone you care about, they need to know that you can see the consequences of your actions.
  3. Explain how you're going to try not to do it again. This is also pretty vital; if you don't plan on doing something different than what you're already doing to prevent this from happening again, there's no reason for your love to believe that you're sorry or to feel safe. It's also important for everyone involved that the word "try" is in there; saying "I'm going to make sure…" sounds all romantic and stuff, but it's pretending you have a lot more control over life than anyone actually does. You're human.
  4. Ask if there's anything more you can do. Related to that "humans aren't omniscient" idea, you may think you know what you need to do, but you also may be wrong. Ask the person what they need, and make sure that "nothing" is an ok answer. It's not their job to figure out your atonement! It's also possible they will ask you to do something that you can't do – and in that situation, it's fine to say "I'm sorry, I can't do that. Is there anything else?" Apologizing doesn't mean you don't still get to have your boundaries.
  5. Keep your promises, both to yourself and to your loved one who you've wronged. That's the difference between an apology to an acquaintance and a loved one: the acquaintance may never know how good you are at changing your behavior, but for your partner, it's going to be pretty obvious if you're making an effort to actually do the things you said.

What's Not in an Apology

Notice there is no "Yeah, but…" counter-arguments. No "But I didn't mean to…" as if that's an excuse. No "If only you would…" or "Maybe if you didn't…" or things like this. Not even a "Let me explain why…" That is not the purpose of an apology. An apology is about sorrow, and restitution, and changing your own behavior so that you never have to apologize for that same thing again.

There's a side benefit to taking apologies this seriously, by the way. You can improve your empathy skills if you stop saying "I'm sorry to hear that" or "I'm sorry that happened" when you had nothing to do with what happened. In that kind of situation, you're making it worse for your love because suddenly, on top of everything else, they know that they made someone they care about sorry.

Instead, try saying something like "Wow, that sounds like it really sucks." Or "That must be really hard to deal with. How are you holding up?" It keeps the situation centered where it should be – instead of you being sorry for things you didn't do.

Trust me. There'll be enough of those to get lots of practice apologizing. And when you do it right, it can turn an unfortunate situation into a way to grow closer in love and trust and intimacy.

Not sorry about that one bit.