Learning how to feel others' feelings
May 7, 2013 12:31 PM   Subscribe

How do I become more empathetic?

As far back as I can remember, I've always had issues in my close relationships relating to empathy. From childhood into my early 20s the concept of considering the feelings of others when performing an action never occurred to me and subsequently I've always had few to zero close friends at any given point in my life. In my immediate family, I've always been the object of frustration for my parents or my sister because of my lack of consideration for their feelings or wants. Only since I turned 25 last year is it that I've started to be able to theorize about how other people might feel in a given situation -- and that's all conceptual and very analytic. I've never been able to identify with how somebody else feels unless I've felt the exact same way in the exact same situation.

In a discussion about this topic recently, my ex told me that I "sometimes have a hard time connecting with people emotionally and then following through with that by caring about them." To me the next logical leap from this is that if I were more empathetic, I'd have an easier time connecting emotionally with others and would be able to form stronger bonds with people.

My question is twofold:

1. How do I learn to feel what other people are feeling beyond simply recognizing "Yes, I see from your red face and swollen forehead vein that you're frustrated"?

2. Will this help me have relationships where I frustrate other people less?
posted by bumpjump to Human Relations (11 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Have you been evaluated for autism or a neurological disorder?

I doubt anyone can teach you to feel or to have empathy, although you can be more attune with other people and be prepared to negotiate around other people's feelings.

Those who aren't empathetic are sometimes Narcissistic (viewing the world and the people in it as ancillary to their own private drama)

I'm trying to find resources, here's one that didn't make me want to gag.

But seriously, at least you recognize that it's a problem, one that you need to work on with a professional I'm afraid.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:49 PM on May 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

1. You could try asking how they feel. The sort of standard answer is to 'try to imagine what it would be like in another person's shoes', but I think you would surely have tried it already if you were wired that way.

2. Assuredly yes. Even if you can't feel someone else's feelings, knowing what sort of feelings they are having, and adjusting your approach to them accordingly, will go a long way with everyone.
posted by tomboko at 12:51 PM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't necessarily think you need to actually full-on feel the literal emotions of other people. Just....think about things from the other person's perspective is all. A few for-instances:

* You need to call a friend and ask them a question about something you're doing tomorrow. However, you also know that it's kind of early in the morning, and they were out pretty late with you the night before. What you stop and think about is: "huh, there's a chance they could be asleep now. would I like it if someone woke me up from a sound sleep to ask me the question I want to ask them?" And then if you realize that no you wouldn't like being woken up yourself, you don't make the call and wake them up right away either.

* Your friend has a shirt that they just made and they're showing it off. They're excited that they successfully got the collar on straight or whatever other technical detail has been escaping them; however, you think some other detail, like say the color, is just kinda crappy. They ask you what you think. What you stop and think about is: "huh, if I worked really hard on something and was happy I succeeded in this one technical goal, and someone came along and trashed it, how would I feel?" And then you realize that you'd feel crappy if someone did that to you. So, you don't do it to them.

You know? You don't actually literally feel what they're feeling, you just look at the situation from their perspective and imagine you are them, and imagine how you'd react if they did to you what you're considering doing to them.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:52 PM on May 7, 2013 [7 favorites]

Only since I turned 25 last year is it that I've started to be able to theorize about how other people might feel in a given situation -- and that's all conceptual and very analytic.

Empathy IS kind of conceptual, or at least part of it is, so it sounds like you're on the right track.

As EmpressCallipygos said above, it's not about literally sharing their feelings, but applying your own knowledge of feelings and responses to someone else's situation. It is about knowing what "sad" or "betrayed" or "thrilled" feel like YOURSELF, and so understanding that those feel generally similar when others express them too.

Very empathetic people do often find that other peoples' situations evoke an emotional response in them, too. For example, a very empathetic person might feel actual (though probably somewhat less intense) grief upon hearing of someone else's bereavement.

But this all involves having experienced the feelings yourself and identifying them successfully. How in touch are you with your own emotions? Do you know what you're feeling and why you're feeling it?
posted by like_a_friend at 1:01 PM on May 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

For algorithms on having empathetic conversation, I heartily recommend "Nonviolent Communication" by Marshall B. Rosenberg.
posted by aniola at 1:11 PM on May 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

Buddhist practice of equalizing & exchanging self with other. Two main takeaways: 1) each time you feel hurt/sad/happy/whatever, say to yourself, "this hurt I feel is the same hurt that others feel when they are hurting. Oh, I wish others didn't hurt like this!" 2) when you see someone in front of you, viscerally imagine how their body feelings are to them, how they feel the same urge to be happy and avoid pain, how they are feeling things right now, even though you don't feel them yourself.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:21 PM on May 7, 2013 [16 favorites]

I believe there are two basic components of empathy:

(1) Caring about other people's emotional condition;

(2) Understanding how your words and actions affect other people's emotional condition.

You obviously have the first component because you're asking the question in the first place. You have the second component to some degree -- you can identify with other people in a particular situation if you have experienced that same situation yourself. So the challenge for you is really just to develop your understanding, which can absolutely be learned.

I can empathize with you (heh) because I also had a great deal of trouble with empathy well into my 20s. For me, the key realization was that people "speak" different emotional languages. Words and actions that affect you a certain way, may not affect other people the same way. So you have to learn how to translate your speech and actions to have the desired effect on others, and vice versa.

So a lot of it is listening and becoming familiar with how the other person communicates emotionally, so that you can communicate with them in their language, so to speak. It takes some conscious effort and patience, but over time your understanding of people's emotional responses will expand and grow more sophisticated.

Also, be aware of emotions that block empathy, chief among which is anger. Untreated anger issues, even if they're subconscious and unexpressed, can prevent you from feeling empathy towards others.

The "see a professional" advice isn't very satisfying, but I think it's important in order to really deal with this issue. Lack of empathy can have many different causes, from autism spectrum to personality disorders, and the solution may be different depending on what the roots of your situation are.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 1:26 PM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mentalization Based Therapy.
posted by Ouisch at 6:17 PM on May 7, 2013

Mindful self-compassion
posted by lalochezia at 5:45 AM on May 8, 2013

Seconding lalochezia, I think mindful self-compassion and reading books on Buddhism would help. I struggle with this a lot too.

The idea is that you become aware that your friend is suffering, listen to them and think about how they really feel and how you would feel in the same situation. That sort of sews (?) the seeds for compassion I think.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 10:02 AM on May 8, 2013

reading fiction enhances empathy. no joke.

also, what EmpressCallipygos said which is basically living by the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. if you're not sure if something is a sketchy idea then think how you'd feel if someone did it to you. if you would feel hurt by it then that is a very good indicator not to do it, whatever "it" is.
posted by wildflower at 1:09 AM on May 9, 2013

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