By Melanie Love Salazar
Web Content Contributor
Growing up, empathy was not a term I heard much about. This led me to enter my teenaged high school years absent of knowing the importance of attempting to understand situations from another person’s point of view.
As you can imagine, it could have been a crucial tool to me around that time to help me navigate healthy friendships and to get along with people who thought differently than me.
I can recall situations to which I would have appreciated people offering empathy to me as well. There were hundreds of moments in which I felt misunderstood, or worse, like I was heard, and told it was wrong to feel how I did because of how they did.
Similarly, like a stubborn thinker myself, I wish I had known better than to shut someone’s perspective down because of my own.
It might have been the pandemic, for some, or one of the most controversial presidential elections in history for others, that opened their eyes to how divided we seem to be.
However, I think this divide among our community has already been present, waiting for people to notice it. We are quick to turn away from the person who disagrees with us and then proceed to cancel them on every social media we have, but it is not only the events that make national news that require the courageous decision of being empathetic.
A huge reason for conflict is the tension in relationships (whether it be family, friendly, or romantic). Overall, the lack of unity among people is partly due to a lack of empathy.
Every day, we exhaust ourselves arguing over which person is right or wrong, forgetting that there is genuine reasoning behind the other person’s perspective. We think we are right and that is the end of it, but we do not ask enough what that perspective is.
Not only does showing empathy help mend conflict, but it enables us to consider what it is like to be another person and do our best to try and understand their perspective, even if we do not fully agree with them.
I think it is one of the grandest gestures of kindness we can offer. Doing so can help others feel less alone, valued and that their feelings are valid. More times than not, we find we are more similar than we thought.
There are many definitions of empathy, but one of the most basic comes from dictionary.com: “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”
Although I do not think this explanation does the definition of empathy justice, it touches on a crucial part of it. To attempt to identify with the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another, you need to have some extent of understanding of either the individual, or the same feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of said individual.
This can only happen through an attempt to listen and put your own beliefs, shaped by your own experiences aside, and try to see the situation differently.
I, by no means, am an expert, but I am a learner. In the course I am taking labeled “Empathy and Writing,” we have been exposed to the various parts of being empathetic. We have learned about when it can be difficult, necessary, scary, or perhaps even wrong.
We have also had the opportunity to ask many questions about it. For example, are there times in which people are not deserving of it?
We ask a lot of questions we are still learning the answers to.
Because of how necessary it is, I have begun to see empathy in our daily life. I reached out to the professor of my Empathy and Writing course, Professor Erik Leake.
When asked where he sees more of a need for empathy, Leake said, “expand who or what we think deserves empathy,” stressing that the statement applies to even empathize with those we may not like.
This process, what Leake refers to as “difficult empathy,” can be one of the most challenging things to do. We usually do not want to empathize with someone who is our polar opposite, or someone who drives us crazy, but it is what leads to the breaking down of walls among people.
It leads people to, if not to agree, understand one another better.
In our interview, Leake also offered information on how we can empathize better.
“I think one of the main things is to be aware of the biases and limitations of empathy, and based upon that, to be more reflective in how they are empathizing,” said Leake.
He went on to explain a couple of questions we can be reflective of, such as, “Thinking back on how I am empathizing, why I am empathizing, with whom, for what purposes, and based on what information?”
Both of these quotes relate to two different types of empathy we show, the first being self-oriented and the second being other-oriented.
It is difficult for us to think like someone else given our experiences, biases, and environments. Because of this, we usually are self-oriented when being empathetic. We think about what we would like to hear and what action we would like to take place if we were them.
Other oriented empathy, however, involves considering what the other individual would like to hear or what actions they would appreciate based on what you know about them, keeping in mind they are a completely different individual (with different experiences) than you.
One of the most helpful things you can do to successfully show other-oriented empathy is asking what the other needs in that moment.
Although it can be scary to come to terms with the fact we do not have all the answers, it is that same brave act of vulnerability that connects us to everyone around us.
Featured image by Melanie Love Salazar.