Every person has different emotional capabilities. As a woman with a mood disorder, I understand this better than many people, since my body sends me stupid chemical triggers that sometimes make me feel like a two year old in need of a nap. But for the most part, I think that most people are capable of learning to empathize. I actually find that I am very capable and interested in knowing about other people's plights, that I feel badly when others do, that I cry if someone comes crying to me. My mother was the same way, and she taught me that it was important to hear people out, to try to understand their feelings. But, when I grew up, I realized that not everyone does this.
What I find, actually, especially in online settings (facebook and twitter are good examples) is that people lack empathy. Silly little pictorial memes with minions, Tweety or a dwarf from Snow White say the most judgmental, weird things."This racial group only wants handouts." I didn't know you were so racist, Snoopy. "Parents of small children just need to GTFO of the way." I didn't know that minions hated small children. "Love America or get out!" I didn't know Tweety was so very patriotic.
Okay, enough sarcasm. You get the drift: judgmental memes, posts and rants online are big. It makes me feel weary. I don't mind reading about important social/political topics, I actually love to do that. But I hate the mean flashcard posts about "this or that person needing to get over him/herself, etc. etc." I have a hard time feeling a normal amount of happiness and patience on my own, and social networking makes it harder, for this reason.
But, I like to be online to socialize about things that bring me joy (namely, books, writing, cultural activities, family and topics of societal importance), so it's a tough call. I'm not perfect. Sometimes people make me angry when they assume this or that through weird cartoon memes or just un-empathetic generalizations. My counselor likes to give me tips that I can use when I feel that my moods are not in the normal range. They often work, when my mind is able to function normally. Even if it's not, I can use them when my elevated moods become balanced (through running, walking, leaving the situation and shutting myself away).
I was looking at a lot of the techniques she uses to help me with my kids and with people who trigger me, and I noticed something. They are centered around empathy-something "normal" me is very good at, but something that "weird chemical imbalance" me is terrible with (again, think tired two-year-old). So, if you are a person who usually thinks that EVERYONE IS THE ABSOLUTE WORST, a person who is frequently posting angry memes, or someone who simply does not understand others, I know how that feels (especially when I'm on an unstable spectrum).
I know that empathy is hard. It's hard to care about people not immediately connected to you, or to care about a person who is not kind to you. Honestly, I think biology tells us to self-preserve and protect rather than empathize, and it's hard to work against your body (again, I know this). However, if you're someone who wants to be a little less fed up with the people around you, here are 5 helpful tips on how to empathize, brought to you by counselling. These are tips I've been given that seem to make life a lot easier when my chemicals are screaming at me to punch things.
1. When a person is not acting his/her best. When they are doing/saying/writing something that bugs me and is, well, wrong!stupid!irritating! (negative judgement words) there is one thing I must do, first, before I can do anything else. BREATHE. Breathing is important. Oxygen helps the brain and body function. A body will overreact if a person stops breathing normally. That person will become more anxious, more irritable. So, breathing slow, measured breaths is a good thing.
2. I try to think about factors outside the situation. What might have happened in this person's day, life, year to effect the attitude or action that they are having? How would I want someone to react to me, if I were having a terrible, shit day? How do I feel when my day is just the worst? How do I react? Could this person be going through something similar? What will reacting negatively bring me?
3. If I must react to a situation, I should react calmly. I should use a concentrated effort to keep my voice soft and pleasant. I need to speak without judgement. "Are you having a hard day?" "Can I do something to help?" These are ways I can engage someone without pointing out their behavior, which will result in more negativity.
4. If a person is belligerent, ignores me or is rude: I don't have to do those things back. Probably, something went wrong in their life/day/year. Does that mean they should be mean to everyone else? No. Does that mean I have to school them on life in front of everyone and make it worse? No. I can do nothing. I can let it go, if it's not all that important. It's been proven that ranting, yelling and venting cause your body to become more agitated, stressed and, well, elevated. So walking away may not be "pushing it down;" it might be just letting it go and allowing my body to calm.
5. What if someone is violent? What about extreme cases? If you feel threatened and you must protect yourself, some of these things might still work. Most people can be reasoned with. If a person cannot be reasoned with, remove yourself from the situation and if there is danger, call the authorities. This is extreme cases only. You don't have to call the cops on someone who is telling his/her toddler, "You're making my life a living hell today!" Is that a great response? No. Is it something that has been true but unvoiced in your life? Maybe. So maybe not the best time to call the cops. If someone is beating his toddler with a Fruit Loops box, repeatedly, well, that's probably a good time to let the professionals help.
Lastly, I try to remember my own shortcomings. I probably mess up three times or more a day (okay, more like 20). "Judge not lest ye be judged" does not have to be a religious saying. It simply means that if I'm not comfortable with someone strolling up to me and being judgmental, it's a good idea to not fall into those patterns myself. I've been on the giving and receiving end of negative judgments daily, and it brings me down. Judging others is not comfortable and being judged is miserable. Passive judgement (judgmental memes, angry "not calling anyone out but saying something sort of obviously mean about someone" posts) count.
I never feel badly when I try to experience someone else's day through their lens. Honestly, it doesn't matter if someone who is annoying, ignorant or rude at any given moment is that way because of outside factors or because they are just always that way. If I react negatively, I feel negative. And I don't need help feeling negative. I just want to be happy, and I'd really like other people to be happy, too. Peace and virtual hugs.
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H.M Jones is the author of B.R.A.G Medallion Honor and NIEA finalist book Monochrome, its prequel Fade to Blue, the Adela Darken Graphic Novellas, Al Ravien's Night, The Immortals series, and several short stories.