Empathy Revisited: A New Freedom

In working with teams and leader’s day in and day out, one of the biggest challenges and desired outcomes I hear is to help people increase empathy with others. To understand each other better. To appreciate each other more. To tolerate each other better. To collaborate with each other better. To improve relationships across the board.

For nearly twenty years, I have been clear of my life’s purpose which is to increase empathy and understanding in the world. Once I became clear of that destiny, all my career work and personal development has centered around this theme. And yet, my lifetime struggle has been judgement. Yes, I share the same human struggle that nearly all my clients experience daily. Coincidence? Unlikely.

Now in practicing what I preach and teach, my “judger” has a name and an identity. Her name is “Mother Superior”. She rents a lot of space in my head and in my life. And she’s very nondiscriminatory about who and what she judges. Family, friends, politicians, drivers on the road, people in the grocery store, other parents, colleagues, children, baristas…you get the picture. Mother Superior knows how to stay busy. An old friend recently asked me when all this judgment began, where it started, as she can remember me being very “judgy” even in childhood. To be honest, I don’t know when it began, but I know I have spent a lifetime trying to figure it out and figure out how to stop it and stop her. Because as much as she judges everything and everyone around her, the dislike, disapproval, and disappointment she reserves for “me” is unrelenting.

What a paradox. A life purpose of increasing empathy and a life struggle of judgment. Life is full of paradox and recently I received a moment of clarity that was paradoxical. The kind of clarity that is so simple and yet so seismic at the same time.

I sponsored a four-hour workshop for local friends, family and community members and the topic delivered by Mark Power was “Defeating Anxiety for Health and Performance”. I had attended many of Mark’s workshops in the past and thought I “knew the content” but wanted it to be shared with others. Little did I know; I was the student in need of new learning.

One short segment in the workshop was on this topic of empathy as it related to our anxiety and our options for reducing anxiety. Everyone was instructed to free write about someone that they had difficulty empathizing with. I chose Donald Trump. I struggled with the concept of finding empathy for this person, not because of his politics but because of my values and my perception of his. As I struggled with how I could possibly have empathy for this man, Mark said to me, “Kathy, if you were Donald Trump, you’d be Donald Trump too.” What?

How do you define empathy? One common definition is: “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. I have always believed empathy to be this ability to understand what it’s like to be the other and to see through their lens. No wonder it's been a struggle.

As our dialogue continued, it began to dawn on me that fundamentally, I will never know what it is like to be in the shoes of another. Not Donald Trump, not my daughter, not my best friend. As close as I may be to a friend or family member, as deeply as I may know another, I will never truly know who they are at their core. But I can accept that if I were them and had experienced every moment of their life’s journey and their comprehension of it, I would indeed be them.

At the core – isn’t this true empathy? At minimum, it’s a useful perspective. I don't need to agree, approve of, align, or even connect with the other to experience the freedom of allowing a basic understanding that… “if I were you – I’d be you too.” With this new clarity, there is a release of tension at my core through the acceptance that they are who they are…because they are who they are.

Whatever the journey and the circumstances of ‘the other’, it’s like the river that forms a canyon over thousands of years. Not in one moment – not from one circumstance – not from one aspect of growing up – but from every breath and every moment of life. Each moment of life is like the powerful river carving out a grain of sand to form the canyon. Each moment a grain of sand carved into or out of our being, each moment slowly carving the canyon of our life.

When we choose to cycle our thoughts and allow judgment to rent space in our heads, that prevents the possibility of empathy because they cannot exist simultaneously. We choose to suffer. And we choose to live smaller than we could. For the sake of feeling right or righteous, safe or invulnerable, we give up our own capacity to live fully, to love fully, and to have our life matter fully.

We all have choice and we all respond to or react to the circumstances of our life. But that’s not what we are considering when reaching inside our self for empathy of “the other”. To have empathy - which is again simple but deep acknowledgement that “If I were you, I’d be you too” – allows us to accept someone as they are. It allows us to let go of the intense anxiety, upset and even hateful feelings that may exist and that may distract and derail us from our own living, serving and loving.

We can accept and at the same time completely disagree with everything that ‘other’ may stand for or represent. We don’t have to get into their faction or try to understand their points of view or anything else. We simply get to choose to understand and accept that "if I were you, I’d be you too". And then return our attention to our own path, our own life, our own opportunities to serve or to act in ways that align to our values, vision and authenticity.

This is personal freedom. Choose life, choose love, choose empathy and freedom will be yours.

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