I was talking with a friend recently about empathy. I think a lot of people are “naturally” empathic, but I also think it’s a learned response, meaning that it’s a skill one can improve with thought and practice.
Before talking about practice, let me share my theory of how empathy works. Sometimes, clues can be obvious and you can pick up how someone else feels by watching body language, tone of voice, facial expression, etc. But, other times you may not consciously be aware of the clues, and your mind may pick up on them subconsciously anyway. In that case, you may not be aware of *how* the feelings are being “broadcast” at you or around you, but usually you can pick up on them anyway.
If you are able to pick up emotions that others are beaming out, they will probably *feel* like they are your own emotions. It can sometimes be hard to untangle what are your own feelings and what feelings are being beamed at you by others.
So, based on that theory I have come up with the following tips for improving ones own natural empathy.
First, take your own emotional temperature, often. This is very important. You’ll need to be able to track changes in your own emotional state moment by moment in order to pick up on someone else’s transmitted emotions. If you’re feeling pretty good, and then suddenly you start feeling angry, you are probably being exposed to someone who is beaming out “angry”. But if you’re not carefully keeping track of your own emotional state, you might not pick up the change, or you might not know if it’s coming from outside yourself or inside your head.
The more often you do this, the more natural it will become. At first, try to do this every hour. (If you have a watch that beeps every hour, consider turning that hourly signal feature on, then when you hear the beep, pause and take your temperature.) Stop for a moment and think about how you’re feeling. If you don’t get a reading right away, cycle through a couple possibilities and see if they “resonate”. Am I angry? Am I tired? Am I happy, excited, anxious, etc?
Also, stop and think about what just happened in the last hour, and how you felt about it. Did someone smile at you, or did someone look away when passing you in the hall? How did you feel about that? Did you start thinking about a problem or issue that made you tense? Consider how you reacted to certain situations… if you over-reacted (or under-reacted) to some stimulus, perhaps you were feeling something that wasn’t caused by that situation at all.
It’s important to note that you don’t have to figure out *why* you’re feeling a certain way. It’s OK for feelings to come and go without knowing the reason. Usually there is a reason, but you don’t have to know it, and you don’t have to figure it out right now. At this point it’s much more important to just observe the feeling and be honest with yourself about the feeling. Give yourself permission to feel that way. Say thank you to your emotions for giving you the message, and don’t shoot the messenger.
You also don’t have to react to the emotion right now. Emotions usually want little more than to be noticed by your intellect, and most often, that’s all you need to do. Just observe them honestly and carry on. If there’s an appropriate action, it will probably still be the appropriate action after sitting on it and thinking about it for some hours, or even days. While you’re under the influence of a strong emotion, it’s not the best time to come up with a solution or fix.
If a feeling is especially strong, you’re probably already reacting to it (either appropriately or not.) Just as long as you include your intellect in the decision-making process, you’ll probably be fine. Where we get into trouble is when we’re not *mentally* aware of our emotional state (or we’re mentally denying it) and our emotions are just spilling directly over into actions without stopping at the intellect along the way. That is what I call “acting out”. (If a feeling is so strong that it doesn’t go away or even fade noticeably on being observed and recorded, consider some safe ways of acting out, like taking a break and walking around outside, beating up your pillow, whatever.)
After a while, when you get good at observing your own feelings, you will probably notice that your feelings are not as strong. This is healthy. As long as the feelings are being noticed by your intellect, they have done their job and carried the message.
You may start to notice changes in your moods more quickly, such as when they happen rather than a half-hour later. This is also a good thing. The goal of taking your temperature often is to be able to sense small changes in the current, and to allow your emotions to freely connect with your intellect. If you start to notice changes in your emotional state in real-time, you can probably ease off on the hourly reminders, but keep taking readings a couple times a day at least.
At the same time, you should also start to notice small changes in your own mood from observing and interacting with others. They will probably start coming in just like messages from your own emotions, only weaker (usually, unless the other person is broadcasting on full, in which case they are probably acting out as well). Take your own temperature again, while looking into the other person’s eyes. If you’re with a bunch of people and you’re not sure whose feeling you just picked up, look at their eyes to see if their eyes reflect what you are feeling.
That’s not all there is to tell, but it’s enough to get you started. Practice, practice, practice. Soon you will be a high-level empath too. Just don’t use your powers for evil or I’ll come take them away.