“We can cultivate empathy throughout our lives and use it as a radical force for social transformation.” Roman Krznaric
Almost all my life I thought being empathic was a curse. I’m deeply affected by what’s going on around me, and by what people around me are feeling. If you’re not a highly empathic person you may not understand what it’s like for those of us who are. Whenever I go out in public, I’m like a magnet. I pick up the feelings of those around me. When I was younger, I didn’t understand why my happy mood would suddenly turn to anger, or fear, or sadness. It was only when I was a little bit older that I realized that the feelings of those around me were attaching themselves to me. Often times my sudden mood swings had nothing to do with my own emotions.
Because I was an emotion magnet, I preferred to stay at home quiet and secure within my own family unit. School, church and going shopping were torturous experiences for me. I’d cry at movies, and feel the pretend injuries of the characters. When I was given a reading or song to sing at church or school, I’d often cry at the poignancy of the piece. Maybe people thought I was a wimpy girl. Good thing I was a girl, because it’s okay if you’re a girl and you have empathy, but it’s not okay for boys. I think that’s sad.
Over the years as I started to do deep spiritual work, practicing meditation and Reiki, I learned how to protect myself from other people’s emotions. When I did that I was able to see that some people shut themselves into cocoons to protect themselves. Maybe they are empathetic too. But some people are so disconnected from their feelings that they have become sociopathic. They can’t see or feel what is happening to the people around them. And frankly they don’t care. They don’t want to understand what it’s like to live another person’s life, as long as theirs is comfortable. It seems like there are a great many people like that in the world right now who fit that description. That makes me sad, because perhaps they started out with a large amount of empathy but got scared and chose to protect themselves.
It takes work to remain open to the feelings of others. Believe me there are times when I wish I could shut myself in a cocoon and not know the terrible things that are going on in the world. But that doesn’t help make a change for the better.
I’m a big believer in energy fields. One thing I can do is to send out positive energy to people in other parts of the world who are hurting. I’ve mentioned the Global Coherence Initiative in previous posts. That organization is all about focusing our collective energy toward a troubled place in the world. Meditation, Reiki, prayer, sending good thoughts are all ways you can send positive energy into the world. It may not always look like the positive energy is helping, but over time, it does.
Another way is to take action and actually do something. This may sound lame to you, but one of the reasons I continue to teach theatre classes, is because I like helping students open up to new abilities and talents. Theatre is an excellent way to open your empathy centers. You must identify with a character to be able to play her well.
I read about a study a few years back that measured how witnessing acts of violence or kindness affected the watcher. They found that witnessing something that’s happening to someone else causes us to feel as if it’s happening to us. I wish I could give you the link for the study, but it was so long ago I don’t have access to it any longer. It’s studies of this kind that prove why theatre, movies and TV are so powerful. It’s also one of the reasons I’m so excited that one of the most popular genres, Super Hero movies, are digging deeper into the struggles each hero goes through before they are able to take on the mantle of a true super hero. What makes them heroes is the fact that they’re willing to face their demons. It’s not just the fact that they have super powers, it’s the inner work they’re willing to do that helps them identify the suffering of others. They are able to empathize with the people they are trying to help.
The thing I liked about the article that if found on Facebook, “Six Habits of Highly Empathic People” by Roman Krznaric was his assertion that we can learn to be more empathetic. It just takes practice. The article was published almost two years ago, but I think it’s just as relevant as the day it was published. Maybe more so. There is a link on the site to a short test to help you see how empathetic you are. If you find your not very empathetic, don’t panic. You can become more so with practice.
I wasn’t surprised to find I rated very high on the empathy scale. I’m also very glad that I no longer feel like being empathic is a curse. On the contrary, it’s a huge blessing.
Lucinda Sage-MIdgorden © 2014