You might wonder if your ability to be an empathic person is limited, due to the kind of brain you were happened to be born with… In fact, you’re quite right! Empathy is something that is determined by nature. The amount of empathy we have for others does indeed depend on genetic factors that you might not be in control of. Just like some people are naturally better at music, empathy works the same way. Yet it is also something that can be learned and developed over time.
Surely, there is a scientifically proven correlation between people who have less empathy and a negative childhood upbringing, yet experts have agreed that we can rewire our neuronal circuitries for empathy. So how do we do it? Research suggests, that these five simple habits, can make the difference…
Habit #1: Become an Empathy Detective
Habit #1 will help us get set up to master the other four habits! Our brains are highly complex, and over decades (if not centuries) our brains have become hardwired by the society we live in. Philosophers like to think we are self-interested or self-obsessed individuals who all have a slight narcissistic character (some more than others). We function on a level where the majority puts focus on how we can benefit ourselves. Unfortunately, this is a system that does rather little to help us spark our empathic potential.
In this respect, get yourself into a habit of looking out for empathic acts. Be the observer. Can you witness any acts of empathy in your daily life? Perhaps at work? At home? You see, when we begin to use our social antennae, we actually become able to erode away our self-interested character and begin to take the first step towards rewiring our brain for empathy.
Habit #2: Discover what you share… and what you don’t
Highly empathic people are able to identify points of common experience with those around them. They consistently search for characteristics in people, ideas they have, habits, lifestyles etc. that they can build common ground with… even with those that appear alien to them.
This does not only mean looking for positive stuff in others, but also common experiences such as those of pain, loss or anxiety. Unfortunately, we cannot assume that people sitting across us, will reveal all their worries, experiences or innocent secrets to us. No. It lies in our very own responsibility to continuously make active attempts in understanding what other people might go through. In this respect, don’t be afraid to sometimes use your imagination, as this will provide you with a springboard in understanding people’s minds.
Habit #3: Leave the instruction manuals behind
Not too long ago, I asked a close friend of mine, an actress, about what it takes to become a truly great actor. She said that great actors have the ability to immerse themselves as far as possible in the life and spirit of their character/role. In fact, she told me that truly great actors, sometimes even lose themselves in the role they are meant to play. They actually become that person in real life! That’s nuts! Yet after thinking about it, I realize that this is how we can truly begin to empathize with others. We have to physically step into their world of experiences. Great actors do this all the time. They take the time to get to know their role and then make every possible effort to adopt their roles characteristics, so that they know how they would behave and act.
To put into a different context, empathy is like learning a language. We usually start to crave through various textbooks, online courses and endlessly repeat various phrases. Yet to become a master at it, there is no substitute for hanging out with natives and having to speak it every day. After some time, it will become our second nature.
Empathy is no different. We learn to empathize best if we begin to leave the ‘instruction manuals’ behind and embark on a journey of experiential adventures.
Habit #4: Take off your mask
Empathy is built upon mutual exchange. As we know by now, empathy is something that can be practiced very well in the light of conversations we have with those around us. Yet, to truly become a master at empathizing with others, we need to take our mask off. What does that mean? Simply said, it’s all about sharing our authentic self with the world. Too often we hold back our emotions, bury our anxieties or hide our fears. We do this as we’re afraid of being judged by those around us. Clearly, at the core of all this lies that we have to embrace vulnerability. Highly empathic people understand that showing the world that you’re vulnerable has nothing to do with weakness or the fear of being judged. They understand that embracing vulnerability is the true measure of our courage. This is what it means to be authentic.
Taking off our masks will allow those around you including yourself, to relate to others mental states a lot more. It will allow you to understand the traumas or highs the person across you is going through and vice versa. In this respect, open yourself up to the world and show people who you are.
Habit #5: Inspire change
Our ancient philosophers were the ones who concluded that the human race, at the end of the day, were highly attuned social animals. I mean, let’s face it, our survival and well-being is for the most part dependent on those around us. On those we trust. And yet too many still focus on how they can promote their own well-being so that they become happier and more fulfilled.
The truth is, is that because we’re such socially orientated beings, it actually makes us a lot happier if we begin to make others happy. Throughout history, great revolutions such as the civil rights movement have posed great examples of such. Highly empathic people, not just today, but also in our past, realise that through acting together and contributing to society, we can counterbalance our highly focused individualistic self-obsessed culture.
Now, there is no need to start a second civil rights movement or setting yourself the goal to eradicate global gender inequality. Start small. Start by organising a little community project with friends… or your neighbours. Think of all the actions that you can do, right now, to bring about change for people who need it. Ask yourself how you can bring more value to the life of others, and you will start to notice, that more value will automatically come into yours.
Take-home message. Empathy is a craft that can be practiced just like any other skill. Through incorporating these five habits into our daily lives, we can begin to rewire our brains for focusing on bringing value to those around us. When we begin to focus on how we can bring more value to the life of others, we actually bring more value to our own life. 🙂