The Adventure of Empathy

Within each of us exists a deeply personal, subjective inner experience. We each have our own DNA, our own history and our own very personal experiences.

We have the stories we’ve created that hold the meaning of our experiences and the feelings that flow from those stories.

We have the choices and actions that have formed our character – and the people, opportunities and relationships that have influenced us, blessed us and challenged us.

Within every person is a world, and our personal worlds are more unique, strange and magnificent than most of us realize. Grasping this can turn our relationships from stale melodramas into rich adventures.

Among those reading this column are people of different ages, genders, sexual orientations, cultures of origin, genetic makeup and family histories… and those are just the qualities that are relatively easy to see or discover.

We also each have deeper complexities. Some of us struggle with depression, anxiety, addictions, other psychological challenges or difficult backstories. These are qualities that we tend to hold more closely to ourselves – because it’s possible they could be met with shame or criticism.

But they’re also often where we can express a very personal unseen kind of heroism.

Our personal psychological issues can hold strength that can show up in surprising ways. People with social anxiety tend to have greater cognitive empathy. Those with attention deficit disorder can make some of the best CEOs.

Many of the things that are labeled as disorders can offer challenges of self-mastery that are seldom seen or discussed, and so the very real triumphs go unappreciated.

Ask recovered addicts what their greatest triumph in life has been, and it will be the triumph over addiction. The most courageous act of a person who has experienced severe trauma is often confronting and overcoming the effects of that trauma.

Because these accomplishments are often done in relative privacy, we tend to miss this as part of the normal range of human mastery – a mastery that requires time, energy, willpower and courage.

Empathy is about orienting to the reality of another person’s subjective experience. It’s the desire and effort we take to understand another person. Without the attempt to understand somebody who’s different from us (namely everyone else), we don’t have all the data. We’re missing part of the truth.

When we don’t know a person yet, we start off by stereotyping. We guess at whom we think this person may be based on little or no knowledge. We look for patterns by which to assess them to get an idea of whether they’re good for us or bad for us – whether we should move toward or away from them.

There’s nothing wrong with this; it’s just human nature. But stereotyping is the first step in getting to know someone. The big problems arise when we stop there and presume that we have all the data: that we know enough of their story to draw sound conclusions.

The broader the brush we paint with, the greater the problem we create. Getting stuck in stereotyping is what fuels racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry. These are extreme forms of empathic laziness. Empathy takes work. It takes consciousness and willpower. And it takes curiosity.

How often have you formed an opinion of people you don’t know well after seeing them behaving in a way you don’t understand? Have you found out afterward what the late Paul Harvey called “the rest of the story”?

  • Perhaps there’s a parent who isn’t minding his children well, but the truth is he just experienced a devastating loss and is barely holding it together.
  • Maybe there’s someone who seems scared of what you see as a nonthreatening situation – but you later find out that he was brutally attacked in just that kind of setting.
  • Maybe you’re bewildered when a woman goes into a fighting stance after fireworks go off… not knowing that she’s a veteran with PTSD who lost her best friend to something that made a very similar sound.

We do this all the time: assuming we know enough about a person.

One of the great honors of the work I do is that, for over 35 years, I’ve been able to get to know a lot of people in more depth than I otherwise would have.

Because of the confidentiality and nature of my work, people tell me things they don’t often tell other people – sometimes even those who are closest to them. Because of this, I’ve had a very consistent and fascinating experience. I’ve found that whenever I get to know people’s stories, most everything they’re doing in their lives makes sense.

This doesn’t mean I approve of everything, of course. I’ve worked with some people who have done some pretty awful things. But I can understand why they did what they did, why they thought it was a good idea or why it seemed like their only option at the time.

There’s an aspect of our lives that’s often hidden in secrecy or assumptions. When we judge another person too quickly, we make any problem we have with them insurmountable and end up feeling helpless. Seeking to have greater empathy for one another is the first, essential step to problem-solving in relationships.

Kindness, empathy and understanding are what lead to much happier relationships. And happier relationships are at the heart of a happier life.

If you want to enjoy an immediate sense of happiness, the most powerful thing you can do is be kind to another person. If you want to give someone you care about a sense of joy, be curious about them. Respond to them…

Listen to them.

The fundamental quality that leads to greater empathy is curiosity. Curiosity about the other person’s internal experience allows us to wonder important, meaningful things. We imagine what they might be experiencing that leads them to think or feel or behave as they are.

In my work with couples, the most common source of trouble comes down to misunderstandings. And those usually come down to a failure of curiosity. Without curiosity, we end up assuming we know what other people are thinking, what they’re feeling and why.

If you really want to make somebody angry, that’s what you do: Tell them what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling and why.

When we stop being curious, we treat other people as fixed entities. It’s like looking at the cover of a book and imagining we know the whole story already. Why even read a story like that? Why even get to know a person we believe we already know everything about?

My wife and I have been together for nearly 25 years, and part of what makes our marriage delightful is that we’re still curious about each other. We’re still learning more about each other.

When we keep our curiosity alive, we see other people as the vibrant embodiment of fresh stories: complex, growing, learning, creative beings.

And that makes any relationship an infinitely more fascinating and delightful adventure to embark upon.

P.S. My new Master’s Course in Happiness is designed to help you learn the skills and habits that will help you build a flourishing life now. Alexander Green has this to say about the course: “I’ve learned so much from Dr. Joel Wade. And with his new Master’s Course, you, too, can learn the skills to feel like you are truly flourishing. Highly recommended.” Due to popular demand, I’m continuing to offer this to Oxford Club Members at a special, one-time, discounted rate. Just enter promo code MH1PROMO.

 

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About the Author

Joel Wade
Author of Mastering Happiness

Joel F. Wade, Ph.D. is the author of Mastering Happiness. He is a marriage and family therapist and life coach who works with people around the world via phone and Skype. You can get a FREE Learning Optimism E-Course if you sign up at his website, www.drjoelwade.com.


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