How To Exercise & Strengthen Your Empathy

Empathy is something that a lot of people make a big fuss out of these days, but that many of us often struggle with. Fortunately, it's like a muscle: exercise it, and you can strengthen it.

Now before we go farther, I'd like to make one thing clear: empathy is not the ability to read facial expressions, body language, and tones of voice. That is kinesics. Kinesics are very useful in prompting empathetic responses, but they aren't strictly necessary. As an example of how someone can be highly empathic without necessarily being good at kinesics, let's say Tessa sees a wrecked car in a junkyard. Looking at the cracks and dents, she feels pain in her own body. Then she recognizes the car's model and realizes that it was only a few years old at most and thus never had the chance to live out a "full" life for a car before it was totaled. Tessa feels emotional pain on behalf of the car that "died" before its time. Still, if you have trouble with kinesics and not empathy per se, some of these exercises might help you.

Additionally, many people have a perfectly fine capacity for empathy that sometimes gets overwhelmed by other things. Someone might be too bewildered over why this person feels this way in the first place (for people on the autistic spectrum, who often have somewhat different values and priorities from neurotypical people, this isn't uncommon), feeling bewildered over how to respond "correctly," and/or feeling confused by one's own lack of an "appropriate" response to this person's pain, can overwhelm if not completely override the empathetic response. It doesn't mean that the ability to feel empathy isn't there. It just means there's a hiccup somewhere that's keeping it stalled. If that's your problem, you might find that some of these exercises help with that, too!

Accept that some brains work very differently from yours. The human brain is essentially a piece of hardware, and every brain works a little bit differently. One person's brain might produce an incredibly strong "seek company!" urge over being alone for a few hours, while someone else's brain might produce a fairly weak "maybe go talk to somebody" urge after being left alone for a day or so. One person's brain might produce a "go complain to someone about it!" urge in response to seeing a problem, but someone else's brain might produce a "fix it right now!" urge. Someone might have a brain that sees following rules to the letter as very important, but someone else might have a brain that continually asks, "ah, but are these rules good for us to follow?" One person might feel huge amounts of guilt after saying something that made someone slightly upset, while another person might feel no guilt after hurting an innocent person quite severely. Basically, different brains can work very differently, producing a variety of responses and reactions.

If it helps, think of emotions and impulses as something that pour out of a number of multi-sized tubes when certain buttons are pressed. Janice might have a huge Anger tube that pours out gallons of the stuff while Terry might have a much smaller Anger tube that produces a mere trickle by comparison. Dylan might have a very huge "It's broken, fix it!" tube that goes off every time he sees so much as a slightly bent fork tine, while Sam might have a smaller tube that only goes off when something is broken to the point it just doesn't function at all. Some people might have tubes that are clogged up or bent, and some people might be missing some tubes altogether. Sometimes a tube might burst, leading to an uncontrollable outpouring of the emotion or impulse. And sometimes, with diligent effort, we can install safety valves on some of those tubes, or make the buttons a little harder to push.

In any case, if you find yourself bewildered over why someone is having a reaction like that or why somebody thinks that something that seems trivial to you is so very important, just remember: tubes, man.

Know that different people learn different rules and methods for navigating life. We all learn and adopt various methods of getting through life without getting into trouble, and sometimes these methods are very different from each other. A child in one family might have been taught that lying was never acceptable, while a child in another family might have been taught that little white lies are okay, and a third child might have been taught that lying and cheating is not only acceptable, it's the only way to get ahead in life. One child might observe an adult using diplomacy and adopt that as a method to solve conflicts; another child might see someone use violence and use that instead.

Know that few things are purely about physical costs and benefits. Some people confused by the concept of marriage often say something to the effect of, "I don't see why affection in marriage is so important when it's basically all about financial security and producing heirs." These people are overlooking the fact that marriage is as much about the emotional benefits as much as the physical ones. People like having things feel official, and they like having a long-term partner they can rely on their emotional needs as much as their physical ones. Many difficult-to-understand behaviors often have emotional stakes in them somewhere - IE, that old teapot might be broken and from a purely utilitarian purpose it would make the most sense to put it into the trash, but that teapot used to belong to Grandma and it's part of home, and home is safe and comfortable. So if you look at something and can't figure out why people are doing it from a strictly utilitarian purpose, remember that there's probably something emotional going on.

Know that most of us tend to assume that our own minds are the best. We often tend to assume that we have the most "realistic" picture of the world, that we understand ethics and morality better than anyone else, that our own feelings and emotions are the most justified, and so on and so forth. This doesn't hold true for everyone, but most people tend to operate this way by default.

Put yourself into other people's shoes. Look at a person or character and imagine that you are this person/character in every way, right down to the facial expression, pose, and clothes. Ask yourself questions like, "What would I have to be feeling and thinking to be acting this way and saying these things?" If you're watching fictional characters and you're by yourself, you can even imitate their poses, facial expressions, and words right there; if you're in front of a real person, you can wait until you're by yourself and do it. Observe what you start to feel and think. (In my experience, this one is helpful in actually learning to read facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice!)

One caveat, however: equifinality (IE, reaching the same outcome/end state through a number of different paths) is very much a thing here, so you shouldn't assume that your own impressions are necessarily correct. A good general rule is to to assume that there are at least three possible reasons that something might be the way it is, and at least one reason that you've never heard of.

Look for possible parallels in your feelings and passions. Do you have a hard time imagining how anyone could love a food that you seriously hate? Stop and imagine how much you enjoy a different food, then imagine that this person feels this way about the food that repulses you. Are you confused at how a character could be so annoyed at another character that you love? Imagine someone that you personally find annoying, and assume that the second character feels that way about the first. Not sure how young mages might feel about writing essays at magic school? Think about how you feel about writing essays. Do you see someone extremely upset over something that you don't see what the fuss is about? Imagine something that made you that upset, and assume that this person feels this way for reasons that are just as personally compelling as your own reasons.

Take some time to view yourself from an outside perspective. Think about some of the last few times you've ended up in disagreements with people. How would you have felt and reacted if you'd ended up in an argument with someone who acted the way you did? Would you have considered that person rude or disrespectful? How about the last time you ended up trying to get someone to do a favor, and it didn't work out? If someone asked you for a favor in the same way, how would you perceive this person? If this person did something that you thought was totally rude or unethical, have you ever done the same thing, but thought that you had a perfectly good reason for it?

Conversely, are you perhaps harder on yourself than you are on others with the same problems? Are you constantly kicking yourself for failing to do things that you'd tell other people aren't their faults? How would you speak to yourself if you were a concerned friend?

Write short stories from other people's perspectives. Come up with some characters who live in very different places and experience very different things than you. The times and settings can be either historical or fictional. Write stories where they have adventures and run into trouble. Along the way, ask yourself questions like, "What would I do and feel if I were them? What would I do if I had to live with the consequences of these actions? Would I really take a risk like this?" (If you don't want to come up with your own characters, you can just write about characters from other people's stories. Yes, writing fanfiction can be good for you!)

Try out some loving-kindness meditations. These can help you start warming up your heart and feeling things for others. You can find one such meditation over here, or search the Internet for more. Practice this whenever you have some time, even if it's only a few moments.

Learn how to be a good listener. The more you simply listen to other people, the more you'll learn about how they think and why they think that way. Take a look at How To Be A Good Listener & Be Emotionally Supportive to learn more.

Work on sharpening your intuition. Empathy is very much an intuitive process, so having a well-honed intuition will help you a lot. See How To Sharpen Your Intuition for more.

You might also like:

Social Tips For The Socially Awkward
Apologizing - How & Why To Do It
Ways To Deal With Negative Emotions

How To Write & Roleplay Characters Who Are Different From You (Or, How To Stop Writing Self-Inserts!)
Simple Tips To Put Yourself In The Shoes Of Characters Who Aren't You
How To Make The Nameless, Faceless, & Minor Characters In Your Story Feel Human To You
How To Make Your "Incomprehensible" Beings Comprehensible - And Why You Need To

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