What comes to mind when you hear the word “empathy?” Many of us think of putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Perhaps you attempt to see the perspective of another person. Or, maybe you attempt to feel the emotions of another person. Empathy seems to be getting a lot of buzz recently, and I have some reflections to share on the topic.
While I believe it is important to practice empathy, I think we need to dig a little deeper. What benefit comes from empathy with no follow up? Beyond simply attempting to understand the perspective of another person, our responses and actions resulting from this shift in perspective are crucial to the well-being of ourselves and those around us.
One positive response to empathy is compassion, which involves emotional connection along with the intent of helping another person. Not only do you recognize discomfort, suffering, or pain in another, you actively attempt to alleviate the condition. This may be as simple as offering a listening ear, giving someone a ride, or making a meal.
Empathy can also lead to giving someone “the benefit of the doubt.” This entails either believing someone or reframing your perspective to assume the good in another rather than the bad. This process is something that I have consciously focused on in recent years. It doesn’t always come easily, but with mindful practice it gets easier. I’ll share a little of my experience with giving people the benefit of the doubt.
Working in the animal welfare field and caring for hundreds of homeless animals over the years, it’s easy to get frustrated and cynical. For example, if a one-year-old dog is surrendered to the animal shelter because they “don’t have time,” a knee-jerk reaction often includes negative judgement towards the owner. Maybe they should have done their research before getting a breed of puppy with high energy. Maybe they only wanted a cute little puppy, but not the responsibility of providing care to a dog who needs its emotional, social, and physical needs met. But, what good comes from this thought process? It casts judgement on others and it causes personal frustration.
Reframing my mind to consider several possibilities can remove the judgement and frustration. I think to myself, “Maybe the person needs to work multiple jobs just to pay rent and is never home so they feel someone else could give the dog a better life,” or “Maybe this person is going through a divorce and their whole life is being rebuilt.” A number of alternative narratives can give the person the benefit of the doubt that they are responding to life circumstances to the best of their ability. Not only can I help this person in a more compassionate manner, I will carry less emotional turmoil of my own.
I understand there are contexts in which giving someone the benefit of the doubt is not reasonable or perhaps not even safe. But, I challenge myself and others to consciously see the good in others and give the benefit of the doubt when possible.
In addition to helping others, empathy can contribute to improved personal peace. I’m not saying cultivating empathy will simply give you peace. From my experience, having an open heart and looking for the humanity in others has positive effects my emotional well-being. Practicing empathy, compassion, and giving the benefit of the doubt collectively lightens the load weighing on my heart and mind. These approaches to social interactions allow me to engage with life in a more optimistic manner, which is not always easy considering the multitude of social issues the world faces. Letting go of unnecessary skepticism and cynicism is uplifting.
What else can empathy lead to? I encourage everyone to explore the possibilities.
Rose Hegerle is a senior studying sociology and gender & women’s studies. She chose these disciplines to better serve the St. Cloud community and contribute a more socially-just world. Her passions lie in empathy, social justice, human rights, animal welfare, and environmental issues (among other things). She enjoys engaging in critical and thoughtful dialogue to draw attention to macro and micro power structures that produce social inequalities. Rose lives in St. Cloud with her spouse and several pets including dogs, cats, mice, and a bearded dragon. Hobbies include canoeing, hiking, camping, playing board games, bowling, eating, and sewing. She currently works at a humane society and plans to stay in the non-profit sector long-term.