Updated: Feb 27, 2019
Empathy is fire... and so are you. Read on to learn more about empathy and how to use it everyday! This post contains affiliate links for your convenience.
I've worked in higher education for nearly 8 years, and in 2017, I encountered a scenario that I've never faced before. I was tasked with working with a student who had schizophrenia.
I have ZERO clinical training - in fact, all my work experience to that point had been working with student athletes. Needless to say, I felt like I was in over my head.
When this student began to hear unexplained audible ringing (according to the DSM, a symptom of the onset of schizophrenia), I initially freaked out. There is a crazy stigma that comes with schizophrenia in general (we can thank good ole' Hollywood for that), but the real concern was I didn't know anyone who experienced these things before and didn't know what exactly to do.
I only had one choice... I had to be wholly empathetic.
Before meeting with the student, I had to ask myself: What would it feel like to not be able to explain what's happening to you? What would it be like to feel paranoid all of the time? How difficult would it be to get through a day if no one understood you?
Since I am not a therapist and don't have clinical training, the only solution was empathy. I wasn't perfect at it (and still am not) -- but have learned several valuable, and practical, lessons about empathy from this circumstance and other similar encounters.
Here are some real-life, every day solutions to practicing empathy.
1. Be Willing to Listen... and actually hear
There is a VAST difference between listening and hearing (can I get an #AMEN?!). I've been in countless scenarios where I catch myself drifting off in a conversation (this mainly happens on Tuesdays and Fridays #butseriously). I'm not talking about those unintentional moments though -- I'm talking about the core willingness to hear other's stories. Being willing to hear other people out requires emotional regulation... yeah, that's right. It's being able to reel your personal emotions and opinions in, taking a deep breath, and being open to the story whatever it may be. Hearing someone is a lot less about you and what you think and a lot more about them -- that's why it's so important to learning empathy.
2. Be Willing to be Uncomfortable
Brené Brown, one of my favorite authors, says, "You can choose courage or you can choose comfort. You can't have both." Being uncomfortable means you're courageous. This communicates to others, "Hey, I may be uncomfortable because your experiences could be different from mine. But your story matters. You matter." We're going to hear stories that make us feel awkward, nervous, frustrated, or even fearful. However, if we can push through those emotions and understand that the feeling won't be there for forever, we're able to learn a lot about others and ourselves.
3. Be Willing to Admit You Don't Know It All
I take pride in having information and knowing the answers - I still struggle with letting people know that I don't have the solutions (I'm a real-life problem solver #thestruggle). However, empathy isn't about providing solutions and solving problems, it's about being in the moment with someone and letting them know, "I feel your pain." Knowing it all seems bright and shiny and polished (all the things I like); however, it isn't real... and empathy requires you to be real.
4. Be Willing to Be Vulnerable
Empathy comes from an emotional connection with other people -- more often than not, the deepest connections come through a shared difficult experience or struggle. In order to experience empathy for someone... we have to be vulnerable to our own emotions and vulnerable with other people. Although these moments can be challenging, the pay-off is much greater. We're able to learn more about ourselves and others and grow in empathy when we're willing be vulnerable.
Living a purposeful life requires empathy as all humans need connection and compassion. The student I worked with those years ago needed connection and compassion, just like I do.
Today, give someone empathy - you never know who needs an ear, an open heart, and a good dose of love.
Thanks for being a star. You're pretty awesome.
LOVE YOU MEAN IT,