3 WORTH-IT STEPS TO AN EMPATHETIC OUTLOOK
There is someone I know and love very dearly, but when I spend time with this person I realize what a fundamentally different knee-jerk reaction to life we have.
The way we look at things is so different and it makes me grateful that I have been able to cultivate an empathetic point of view. An empathetic viewpoint on life helps me be more understanding, loving and caring and keeps my anger and blood pressure low! 😉
It also allows me to model an empathetic outlook for my children. I know that what they see from me on a daily basis is the norm they will emulate, both now and over the years. If I have that power over what they become, I want to do everything I can to instill empathy in them!
The difference in the way my friend and I come at the world has always been most apparent to me when we are in a car together. If someone is driving slowly ahead of us, even if I am frustrated, my thoughts tend toward “they must have been in a car accident recently and are feeling super cautious”, “Maybe they have their newborn baby in the car and are feeling like they have to drive super careful and protect their little one from every evil in the world” (I totally felt like that for the first two months of both my babies’ lives! Anyone else?), or “I bet they are really passionate about their gas mileage usage”.
However, the first thing out of this person’s mouth in this same situation is “COME ON!” “Get a move on you jerk!” “Why are they being so rude?” “Sheesh – that guy needs to learn how to drive! He’s a *Bleep*.”
THE POWER OF SEEING MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVES
The difference in our response to the same driver on the road may be a general positive attitude on my part, but I think it stems strongly from a habit of seeing things from BOTH my perspective and the other person’s perspective. This allows me to consider the driver’s intent and separate their intent from myself.
I realize that what they are doing has nothing to do with me or with trying to inflict anything on anyone else and is only a reflection of their current situation in the world. If I put myself in the other driver’s shoes, I realize it is highly unlikely that the driver set out on the road today thinking, “You know what? I am going to drive super slow today just to piss off everyone else on the road.”
It is way more likely that their car is making crazy noises but they don’t have the money to fix it – and are trying to go as long as they can without repairs by never driving above 60 mph. Or that the driver is an elderly person who may not have the reaction time and eyesight they once did but just can’t make themselves give up the freedom of driving. Or the driver is a teenager in the first month of being in the car on their own – and good for them for taking it easy if they aren’t feeling 100% comfortable yet.
Yes, there are annoying reasons someone might drive slow such as trying to check google maps or text while they drive, but it is so good for your soul to give the person the benefit of the doubt. If you get annoyed with someone you don’t know by assuming the worst of them right away, you will definitely not help yourself stay calm or maintain a positive mood for the moment (or the day!).
To be clear, viewing the person with empathy does not excuse their actions or mean it’s okay that they are doing what they are doing. However, it will allow you to understand where they are coming from and enable you to give them just a little more grace and understanding, as opposed to assuming they are out to get you and ruin your day.
3 STEPS TO MAKING A CHANGE1 TAKE A MOMENT TO CONSIDER
How would your day feel different if you assumed the best about a stranger (or even an acquaintance) who was annoying you? Realizing the difference it would make, makes the minimal effort worthwhile.
What times of day do you feel trigger you the most? Commuting? Running errands? Talking to customer service agents over the phone? Knowing when you will most likely think these thoughts makes it easier to “catch them” and recognize they are happening. Often they are such a habitual way of thinking that we barely realize the thoughts we are having.
Go into these situations over the next couple days planning to give people the benefit of the doubt and see how your response to them changes.2 TRY IT OUT
Try to catch yourself thinking or verbalizing your thoughts and, when you do, take 30 seconds to try to feel empathy toward the person instead of anger or annoyance.
Once you do, think of at least one reason the person may legitimately be acting the way they are. Bonus points for thinking of as many reasons as you can.3 PUT IT ON REPEAT
Try your best to do this consistently for a month, and you just may have yourself a new, uplifting habit that makes your days that much more joyful and less stressful. (Research shows that if you stick with something for a month, it is way more likely that you will continue that behavior in the future.)
NEED EXAMPLES OF HOW TO REFRAME YOUR THINKING?
Here are a few ideas for how to reframe your thinking in various situations:
The gruff customer service agent
Instead of thinking “This person is so rude and I can’t believe they are treating me this way” see if you can turn it around into:
“Wow… I really feel bad that this person must be having a bad – maybe the baby spit-up on them as they were headed out the door or they had a fight with their spouse before work this morning” or “I can tell this person really feels stuck in a dead-end job and isn’t feeling fulfillment. I am so glad I’m not in their shoes.”
The crazy driver zig-zagging through traffic
Instead of “What a jerk!” try thinking:
“I wish they wouldn’t drive dangerously, but they must be having one of those evenings where everything took ten times longer than it should have at work and they are now late to their child’s special event and are trying the best they can to be a good parent” or “Maybe they have less than 10 minutes to get a super important document to the post office so it is postmarked today. I know how that feels.”
The slow-as-a-turtle person at the check stand
Instead of “Ugh!”, how about:
“Man, she is probably dealing with some heavy thoughts – she looks like she’s lost in her own world and barely going through the motions. I wonder if she just found out someone she loves has cancer, if she is worried about how she’s going to pay her mortgage, or if she has a newborn at home and hasn’t slept more than a wink in the past 3 months.”
UNDERSTANDING, NOT EXCUSING…
Remember, this isn’t excusing their behavior, but just understanding that there may be normal human reasons that they are acting the way they are and we may have even done the same thing ourselves at times. Assume the best of someone and you’ll feel so much lighter than if you jump to anger and massive annoyance.
If you’re less angry and annoyed, you’ll also be parenting from a much more stable emotional state – and that’s always a good thing for everyone involved!! On top of that you will be modeling empathy and healthy emotional habits for your children.
When you can make some mindset changes and feel better yourself, be in a more even-keel state for your children AND help them grow emotionally, what’s not to love?
Start trying to catch yourself when your thoughts “jump to the worst about someone”. When you do, try to reframe them into an empathetic view of what that person may be dealing with in the world.
You can do this! I’d love to hear how it goes – let me know. And if you have anyone you think would enjoy this viewpoint makeover, please share with them!
With warmth and joy,