Stretching Our Empathy Muscles

Lately, it seems everybody’s got plenty of reasons to be angry. We’re all in a hurry, in debt, stressed out, burned out, maxed out — you name the extreme negative emotion, and someone around you is probably experiencing it right now. People are crazy, the world’s on fire, kids aren’t like we were when we were little, and it seems there’s just so many reasons to lash out, get defensive, or complain about the world around us.

We see the stories on the evening news and we nod our heads, justifying our anger. Look! Our politicians are doing something stupid/hurtful/immoral-according-to-my-beliefs again. What choice do we have but to be angry, anxious, and aggressive, amiright? Actually, I’m not.

Please, dear reader, take a deep breath, sit back and consider just a few things. No matter what side of the political fence you sit on, no matter what religion you subscribe to or philosophy you adopt, there’s one thing that unites and should unify all of us — the fact that we’re all just humans, struggling with the same human emotions, and sometimes sharing similar life situations.

It’s so easy to be angry. It’s easy to hate. I’m not sure why this emotion stays so close to the surface in most of our brains. Maybe it’s a throwback to our caveman days, when hating the things that could kill us kept us at an advantage. If we couldn’t relate to our enemies, it was easier to take them out and keep ourselves at the top of the food chain.

Today, all that anger and aggression is still there, easily accessible, but it doesn’t offer us the same benefits. In fact, it’s holding us back. While we let our hate and fear control our actions, we miss out on the opportunity to really look at situations from every angle. By lashing out at the things and people who trigger our anger or fear, we miss the chance to see their perspectives and possibly learn something.

Why do we get so angry when something doesn’t go ‘our way?’ When that jerk cuts you off in traffic, or when the cashier rings up your order wrong and wastes your time or costs you money you weren’t planning on spending, why do you let your emotions color your actions? Probably because it’s easy to be angry. Maybe because we’re wired that way. But, you don’t have to be so angry all the time, and if you take the time to think about the situation, it might just change the way you react to the world around you.

When someone does something ‘stupid’ or hurtful, try to ask yourself why they’ve done it. There could be a million reasons why someone cuts in front of you without using their blinkers. Sure, they could be jerks who don’t care about anyone else on the road, or they could be distracted by something in their lives. Maybe they just found out they have a terminal illness, or maybe they just had another fight with their partner and can’t stand the thought of going home to more conflict.

That cashier that messed up at the grocery store could be extremely nervous because they are severely shy and have fought hard to overcome their shyness in order to hold down a job. Maybe they have a learning disorder that makes counting change more difficult, or maybe they were distracted because their paycheck isn’t enough to cover their rent and they aren’t sure how they can pay their bills.

The simple fact is, we can’t know what others are thinking when they do things that annoy or anger us. And we probably do stuff that annoys and angers others, too, if we think about it. We’re all human, after all. But, if we can try to develop our empathy and make an effort to understand why others do what they do, it can make life better for everyone.

Of course, it’s easy to do this with minor things like the ones I’ve mentioned. What about people who believe very differently from you? People whose morals and beliefs don’t closely align with your own? Can you understand why they think like they do? Sure, you can, but you may need to really stretch your empathy muscles. Maybe you can ask them questions about why they think or feel a certain way.

This requires an effort on your part, but I promise, it’s worth it. Listen — really listen — to the reasons they give you. Even if you find that you still can’t agree with their beliefs, you may be able to understand why they feel the way they do, and that will make it so much harder to dismiss those beliefs with hate.

Understanding why people act the way they do will also help us understand our own emotions. If you’ve ever been angry about something, but not sure why you’re angry, it may be because you haven’t taken the time to really understand your emotions.

Are you really angry about the actions or beliefs of someone else, or are you angry or frightened by your perception of the situation? Are you angry about being shortchanged at the store by a dollar, or is there a worry inside you that you won’t have enough money to care for your family?

Identifying our emotions is not something we’re taught in school (some schools are trying and that’s a great step in the right direction), but it really should be something everyone learns how to do.

When we understand our emotions, we take away some of their control over us and let us choose how to react to stressful situations. You can actually learn how to be happier just by understanding your anger triggers and understanding why others trigger your anger. Understanding the emotion and practicing empathy gives you a chance to resolve those angry feelings in a healthy way that really is better for everyone involved.

Empathy is a word that’s thrown around a lot, but it seems to be rarely used. Most people can only empathize with people they have a lot in common with. But, if we could all learn to understand and learn from each other, imagine how much better the world could be.

JB Woods is still trying to figure out who she is, but when she does, she’ll definitely let you know. She’s a writer, a mother, and a friend to humans.

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