We Need To Talk About Empathy

My friend Prue Memo asked me a few months ago, “Do you ever do guest blog posts?”  I hadn’t yet, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t.  She continued to tell me, “I would love to do a guest post about empathy.”  I paused for a moment because I had been thinking about a post on empathy, but decided that it would be great to get someone else’s take on it.  We chatted more about empathy and I was eager to have her post.  What follows is Prue’s guest post on empathy.  Thank you, Prue!

empathy

By Prudence Memo

I spend a lot of time training people to handle strong emotions (theirs and other people’s) when confronted by ‘difficult’ people. Managing your emotions isn’t always easy because other people (customers, co-workers, bosses) can seem, on occasion, to be enraging fools. But it’s a necessary part of being professional because being irate or anxious doesn’t help anyone manage relationships and gain cooperation.

Empathy is a great tool for managing conflict. It helps us to gain perspective and, when expressed verbally, works to calm other people down and stop them shouting at us. To limber my students up, I get them to practice empathising with the most recent ‘idiot driver’ they encountered (everyone has a recent idiot driver story in this town). I get them to brainstorm excuses for the other person’s problem driving. Were they late for their first day at their new job? Was their wife/girlfriend about to give birth prematurely and they really wanted to be there? Did they only pass their test last week and they are a really nervous driver?

None of these scenarios excuse dangerous driving, and the person who cut you up might just be a careless moron, but that’s not the point. Simply being actively curious about what led to the other person’s challenging behaviour can flip a switch in our heads. We begin to imagine what its actually like to be someone else, and our empathy circuits light up. When we feel empathy with someone, it’s harder to act contemptuously towards them. Even where we disagree, empathy makes a respectful exchange more likely. Humans have an inbuilt ability to empathise and, as the idiot driver exercise shows, we can consciously evoke empathy if we try.

Unfortunately, we also have the ability to disconnect our empathy circuits when we decide someone doesn’t deserve our understanding, or even our respect. This tends to happen when people trigger negative emotions in us. Which is why learning to manage one’s emotional reactions is crucial in professional life, where we often have to collaborate with people who do or say things that annoy or provoke us. Which brings me to the point of this post. What I think I’ve seen around me over the last few years is a massive failure of empathy. Much of the internet is a showcase of aggression and harassment, many of our most popular entertainments revolve around humiliation and our politics are becoming harsher towards the poor and disadvantaged.

We have the impressive ability to empathise even with people we are only distantly aware of, as evidenced in charitable giving. However, our equally characteristic ability to casually decide that whole groups of people are unworthy of our empathy is frightening and corrosive. And it is this latter ability which seems to be increasingly dominant. Over the past three decades or so, our collective morality seems to have been shifting away from empathetic values like solidarity and compassion (which get dismissed as symptoms of weakness and naivety) towards a celebration of ruthlessness and competition.

Maybe this is a cyclical thing and the values pendulum will swing back towards empathy again. I worry, though, that being complacent about the current trend might lead to it becoming entrenched. And I believe we sorely need more constructive engagement, given the massive social and environmental problems facing us. If individuals can decide to be more empathetic, why not societies? If all of us (including parents; teachers; politicians; religious and cultural leaders) consistently choose to frame empathy as a virtue, and encourage its practical expression, maybe we can transform the current norm of bad-tempered engagement into something more constructive. We need to talk about empathy.

The Pursuit of Happiness

Despite being fortunate in so many ways, I can’t say that I’ve been overly happy for the last few years.  I wouldn’t say that I have been unhappy, either. Perhaps the best way to probably describe my feelings is as a vague sense of dissatisfaction. I’ve often honed in on the things that I don’t have, peering intently over the fence and looking at all the lovely, lush green grass.  Much of my dissatisfaction springs from want, thinking that if I just am able to get [fill-in blank here…there can be so many things, anxiety over my size and shape, desire for a better job, life in a different city, etc] that somehow things will be much better.  As a result, I’ve often felt a bit like Sisyphus, constantly pursuing happiness only to have it slip away.

As I talk with friends my age, many seem to feel similarly; somehow feeling as if something is missing from their lives.  I’m sure that some of this is simply a First World problem, where we have the luxury of indulging in our angst.  Or it could be from living in the United States, a society that puts a premium on the idea of happiness; we’re told such things as “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and regularly reminded to smile.  Indeed, even with our Declaration of Independence, we declared that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were among our “inalienable rights.” I’ve often felt at a loss because I’m not adequately exercising my inalienable rights when faced with the day-in, day-out realities of adult life.

But what is happiness? Research gives us some interesting insights into happiness. Some social scientists have found that happiness can be tracked in a U-curve.  Happiness is high in our youth, plummeting down to a low-point in our late forties, only to start increasing back towards the levels in our youth.  In other words, happiness returns as we get older. Another research-based take is the famed Grant study on happiness at Harvard.  It was intended to be a longitudinal study of leadership, but provided more insights into happiness. Starting in 1938, they followed 268 men from Harvard (not the most diverse or representative population sample, but we’ll go with it…lol) and essentially found that happiness comes from having “warm relationships.”  Or, as George Valliant, author of the findings put it, “Happiness is love. Full stop.”

It would be obvious to point out that these are academic approaches to happiness.  While studies can provide insights, that doesn’t necessarily result in happiness.  I believe happiness is something you define for yourself.  For me, happiness is not a cloying, treacle-filled state of sunshine, kittens and rainbows, but more of a prolonged sense of satisfaction with yourself, your choices and your relationships.  And, as I continue to seek happiness, increasingly I find that I’m not doing it because I’m supposed to, but because it feels comfortable. Maybe it’s that I’m just beginning to move along the upside of my U-curve, but as I look around my worlds, I can start to see that happiness doesn’t have to feel like it is always on the other side of the fence.

So, dear friends, what does happiness mean for you?

Secrets and Lies

Secret

I’ve had a pseudononymous online life for a number of years now. I use pseudonymity instead of anonymity because I’m not truly anonymous (I don’t think any of us are truly anonymous online, but that’s another point); some know my real name and others could probably figure out who I am if they have paid attention and feel like playing around on Google.  While I’m still cautious about what I post, pseudonymity has undoubtedly allowed me to enjoy some freedom of expression away from the dictates of real life. Yet, the other side of the pseudonymity coin has been that I’ve purposefully not connected my real life with my digital life.  I’ve had a whole host of justifications for this, of course; chief among these is a belief that as one friend eloquently put it, “we’re allowed to have our own inner lives.” My pseudononymous online life has been a small island of freedom where I’ve allowed myself some escape from my daily grind, but has also been predominantly hidden from plain view.

Recently, however, I’ve had two different and separate events occur that has caused me to rethink about what I want from my online life. The first was with online friend with whom I’d once been very close. We’d had a long history, including a falling out in the past over a lie to me.  Yet in the past year, we’ve drifted apart.  When she first started drifting, I couldn’t shake this intuitive sense that something was up.  I asked her about it, of course, and she categorically denied that anything was different other than her real life had gotten busier.  We had a number of frustrating conversations about this until we’d basically stopped talking and had become passive friends, keeping one another on social media but rarely commenting.  Yet, through a chain of events, I came to find out that she’d had a romantic relationship that she’d kept hidden from me.  Now, truth be told, she wasn’t obliged to tell me of this relationship; that was her business entirely, but we had been close enough as friends that it was surprising to me.  But given our history of a past lie and her responses that nothing had shifted in our friendship when I asked, I couldn’t help but feel like I had been lied to again.  I decided that I couldn’t maintain a passive friendship with someone who wasn’t demonstrating honesty and dropped her from all of my friends lists.

Yet people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.  While I’d made some general references to my online life in my real life, I hadn’t been completely transparent about it with the people at home.  Through a chain of events, my spouse saw one of my pseudononymous sites earlier this week; the initial response was anger and hurt, but as I described my reasons and explained more about what I do online, it gave way to sadness that I felt like I needed to keep things a secret.  We’ve had some really good conversations as a result, but I’m wondering why I felt compelled to keep so much hidden for so long.  I’m still feeling awful that I didn’t have the courage to be more open amidst all of my justifications and rationalizations.  But I can’t help but ask myself, is my behavior all that different from the person I dropped as a friend?

Which brings me to my question: What’s the line where something slips from being a secret to maintain our inner lives to being something that would be considered an active lie?  Intuitively, I think it’s at the line where you know that the other person would be hurt if they found out before you told them.  But even then, I think there may be a continuum, with the line moving based upon the person and the nature of your relationship.  What might be a huge transgression to one person, might be no big deal to another.  I think the trick is being attentive to know when that bright line is crossed and then taking steps to be more open.  So what is it to you, dear reader, at what point does a secret become a lie to you?

Pessimistic Optimist or Optimistic Pessimist?

Charlie Brown and Lucy

I frequently find myself balancing hope and cynicism.  I want to believe in optimisim, I really do. I think most people would describe me as a “do-gooder,” striving to make things better for others both personally and professionally.  Hope is a critical quality to this; if you are trying to make things better, ultimately you’ve got to believe in the possibility that things can improve.  This sort of hope requires optimism and, generally, I’ve got this quality in spades.

My pessimism, however, is driven by my experience with people.  Ultimately, we human beings are a selfish lot.  It is entirely possible for us to be altruistic, but even then, people often have some ulterior motive.  For example, working in education, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen faculty and administrators choose what is convenient for them over what is best for students.  This isn’t to say they don’t care about students, because they usually do, it’s that they care about themselves more.  I share that not to judge them (okay, maybe a little, but that’s a future post), but to illustrate that our default position is usually from our perspective first.

Which brings us to the task of balancing optimism and pessimism.  Most frequently, optimism is an inward facing quality; it’s generated by ourselves and is based on our hope.  Pessimism, however, is more frequently externally driven; we’re less likely to believe in something if we’ve been disappointed by others in previous situations.  Our hope is constantly held in check by guided self-interest of others; it’s easy to be hopeful when we agree, but it’s in those moments of misaligned desires when life gets interesting.

People aren’t wrong to look out for their interests, but how do we do the mental calculus necessary to decide how far we hold on to our own hope?  For me, it really depends on the situation and the people involved.  My sliding scale of optimism and pessimism moves with my level of hope in the outcome in contrast with my experience with the people involved.  In other words, I let go of my hope when I no longer believe .  I don’t think I’m unique with this, we all have our own lines where decide just how much we’ll believe.  This line is personal, of course, and shifts with each situation.

What gets me thinking, however, is knowing where and when to draw the line between hope and cynicism.  But how do we know we’re just not some version of Charlie Brown, running to kick the football only to have Lucy pull it away at the last moment…again and again?  How do you decide when to be optimistic and when to be pessimistic?

Like A Room Without A Roof

I love music and have very eclectic tastes.  From jazz to hip-hop, classic rock to singer-songwriter ballads and more, I enjoy a wide range of music.  In general, however, you can get a pretty good idea of my mood based on what I’m listening to at the time.  Sometimes,  instead of telegraphing my mood, music can shift my mood.  For me, there are a handful of songs that I cannot help but smile when I hear them.  They’re upbeat songs (and, yes, some are treacly) that will get me moving and smiling.  Yet it’s not only because of the music, there are often happy memories associated with each; the lyrics and melodies help, but it’s often the fond memory of the song that helps the happiness kick in.

While not an exhaustive list, and in no particular order, some of my happy favorites are:

Happy by Pharell.  ‘Nuff said.

I Can See Clearly Now by Johnny Nash.

Lovely Day by Bill Withers.  That voice.  Those lyrics.

Groove Is In The Heart by Deee-Lite.

 

The Magic Number by De La Soul.

These songs make me undeniably happy.   When I want that little bit of a happy boost, I usually turn them up and dance and sing along.  Don’t mind me, after listening to these, I’m just going to be smiling away over here.

So what about you?  Do you have happy music?  What are some of your happy favorites?

Objects In The Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear!

I try to be self-aware, I really do.  But, like all of us, I have blind spots.  I’m not talking garden variety weakness, but traits that I don’t even comprehend that I have.  For example, I know that my proclivity for blurting out flip comments can be a weakness.    Sure, it can be funny sometimes, but I’ve also had moments where it’s caused me problems.  Because I am aware of this, I sometimes know to bite my tongue and resist the urge to lob a comment into the fray.  But what if I didn’t realize that I was making flip comments?  What if I didn’t bite my tongue because I didn’t think it was something that needed addressing?  I’ve learned that psychologists have modeled all of this with the concept of the Johari Window, but apart from modeling, how do you see past your blind spots?

The stuff that we can’t see is hard.   Mostly because we have to be able to see that we’re doing something in order to understand it.  I have a colleague at work; she’s a lovely, smart, and talented woman.  For her, a friend is a friend is a friend, regardless if she met through a community group or work, and she jumps into friendships with both feet.  Meanwhile, I’m slower to open up and like to let friendships develop and emerge over time; this is even more true with someone I’ve met through work.  When we started getting to know one another, I found that because of our different viewpoints, I had to establish some boundaries to our friendship.  As we discussed this, however, she really struggled to grasp the idea being friendly doesn’t mean you have to go straight to BFFs.  We eventually got to the same page and a friendship developed over time, but it was a challenging conversation because she couldn’t completely grasp friendship other than in a binary way.

Much like when I have a piece of spinach caught in my teeth, I rely on friends to tell me when I have a gap in my self-awareness.  But here’s the irony, what if you’re so blind to it that you can’t even hear what your friend is telling you?  I’m always glad to learn of areas where I need improvement, but sometimes I’ve found that sometimes I struggle to get my arms around what I need to improve.  I would like to avoid being plowed over by whatever might emerge from my blind spot, but don’t have any good answers.  I think there is something to the fake Buddhist quote, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”  We may have well-intended people trying to tell us different things, but if for whatever reason, we can’t grasp the concept that is being put forward.   So, dear reader, how do you see into the unknown areas of yourself?

What Do You Think?

systems-thinking

Thoughts. So often, they drive our actions and reactions. But how do we know if they’re the right thoughts?

Like most of us, I have some deep-seated fears that elicit strong reactions from me.  One of my biggest fears relates to rejection and loss. I suspect this stems from the fragmentation of my family that eventually resulted in my parents’ divorce when I was eight. People left. Things changed.  And I secretly feared that I was somehow the cause of this.  Between a loving but somewhat narcissistic mother, an alcoholic father, and a whole bunch of counseling, I figured out pretty quickly that I wasn’t the cause.   But while I could rationally understand that it was all because of reasons unrelated to me, the fear was imprinted in my psyche.  As a result, I pathologically do what I can to avoid being the cause what I perceive would be rejection and loss (hmm, maybe that’s why some people think I’m too nice).

But despite this fear,  I’ve experienced rejection and loss very real and profound ways; I wouldn’t be human if this wasn’t true.  To the extent that I understand it’s beyond my control, I start to mourn and grieve, doing what I can to move on.  Unfortunately, however, my starting frame is usually guided by my fear that I did something wrong.

My fear of rejection and loss has been poking pretty hard at me lately.  It has manifested itself in different ways, but it has been a theme that has repeated itself a number of times in the past year:  A reorganization at work that resulted in a demotion of sorts, online friends with whom I was once very close but have drifted far away, and even interviews where I didn’t get the job.  In each of these instances, I’ve assumed that I’ve done something wrong; that behind it all is cause and effect that is somehow my doing.  Despite my assumptions, in each of the instances I’ve mentioned above, I was wrong; I’d gotten good information that those changes weren’t about a rejection of me, but a result of other factors outside of my control.  My fear made it difficult for me to embrace that it wasn’t my fault and I’ve swung like a pendulum between rationally knowing it’s not about me and irrationally fearing that it’s all my fault.

The problem is that if you start with that frame, it can be awfully hard to move beyond it. I suspect I’m not all that different than most of us; while gripped with this fear,  I hold onto that which validates my thoughts and fears while I discount information that contradicts my thoughts.  In other words, it’s easier to trust our dark places more than the light ones.

I’m not certain if it was serendipity or that I was ready for metabollizare on this concept, but I heard a great podcast yesterday.  NPR has a new podcast, Invisibilia, and their first full episode was on The Secret History of Thoughts.  I can’t do it full justice in a sentence or two, but the episode gave instances of how people’s thoughts played a big role in how they crafted their reality and what happened when they changed those thoughts.  It certainly has me reflecting on the ways that I’ve let some of my thoughts run amok because of my fear.  The good news is that we have choices as to how we can react. There is always more to process and learn, but I find myself pondering:  How do we really know which of our thoughts to trust?