Empathy is a word that’s thrown around a lot these days. Looking back at my life, I can see that the situations in which I didn’t receive empathy have shaped me into the person I am today.
What is empathy? My favorite definition of this term is, “Empathy is communicating that incredibly healing message of “you’re not alone.” –Brene Brown
I have always been someone who is more on the sensitive side. I used to think that there was something wrong with me for feeling emotions so deeply. But after many years of self-reflection and vulnerable conversations with others, I realized that I am not the only one who struggles with my sensitivity. I now feel that this quality is a gift, rather than a nuisance.
In the desi culture that I grew up in, my elders would make jokes and comments, which I perceived as hurtful or rude. There were moments during my adolescent years when I started to cry over something and a family member would say things like, “What’s the point of crying? It’s all in your head, snap out of it!”
One time, I carelessly damaged my car which resulted in having to pay a lot of money.
When I started to get teary about this, a family member scolded me saying, “Stop being such a baby!” Why are babies the only ones allowed to cry when they’re upset? Another time, I had been feeling down because I missed my mom, who lives on the other side of the world. When a relative asked me, “How are you?” I told them how I was truly feeling. Their response was, “Aww, well at least you can FaceTime with her.” In that instance, I understood why so many people simply say “I’m fine,” rather than sharing their true emotions when asked about how they’re doing.
Although they said these things out of their own pain or frustration, they were still hurtful.
My ‘negative’ emotions made them uncomfortable, so they reacted without empathy, and I was left feeling lonely and misunderstood. It was a vicious cycle, which had to be broken. After years of dealing with these types of comments, I’d had enough.
I’ve noticed that many times when I opened up about being sad or scared, the response I received was “tough love.” While their intention may have been to “fix” my negative emotions, it was still unhelpful and damaging. I couldn’t even be mad at them because I knew that they just hadn’t been taught how to show empathy. They were triggered by their own emotions, so how could I expect them to be there for me? They would jump to their default reaction, which was to say whatever would get us out of the uncomfortable situation. All of this happened unconsciously. It requires a little bit more brain power to stop and think about what you say rather than blurting out the first thing that comes to your mind. But if we want to have healthy, loving relationships, this is part of the price we must be willing to pay.
I am not blaming anyone, as I myself have unintentionally shown a lack of empathy numerous times. The point is to learn from our mistakes and keep trying.
For instance, one day a seven-year-old cousin of mine was venting to me about her frustrations about her family. Seeing someone I love upset made me want to take her pain away, so I unknowingly responded by trying to fix her problems. She got annoyed and told me that my positivity was cheesy and annoying. I am so glad that she was bold enough to say this to me because it reminded me of all the times in my life where all I did was stay quiet, which leads to resentment. My cousin made me realize that at times like these, what people need is not advice; they just need a safe space to feel their feelings without judgment.
I think that one of the most hurtful experiences is being vulnerable and open with someone, and then getting a response in which you feel like what you’re feeling is wrong. We all want to be seen, heard, and understood, especially during times of emotional distress. Is it too much to ask for to just have someone sit, listen, and show a little bit of compassion? With practice, it does become easier.
After years of studying psychology and reading as many self-help books as I possibly could, I finally came to the conclusion that there is nothing wrong with being sensitive or showing ‘negative’ emotions.
I am not trying to feel sorry for myself. In fact, these experiences have made me much stronger and have allowed me to give myself the love and compassion I craved from others.
I am grateful for each person who challenged me in this way because they taught me how not to take things personally. Now, I am able to acknowledge, “ouch that hurt,” but then take a step back and remember that their un-empathetic reactions are not my problem. This is liberating once you realize the truth of this notion.
Now, when someone shuts me down or invalidates my feelings, I am more able to look at them through the eyes of compassion and realize that they have their own issues that they’re dealing with. This is no excuse to justify rude behavior, but this habit sure makes it easier to forgive and move on with my day. I have also realized the importance of voicing how their reactions have hurt me so I can be true to myself and not hide my feelings.
More than ever, there is a crucial need for communities to become educated on how to show empathy. One small but powerful step is simply showing this three-minute clip which beautifully illustrates this. Empathy is the tool which has the power to mend relationships, foster deep connection, and see the world through another’s eyes.
I believe that we are all imperfect human beings who are trying our best to live a happy life. We need each other in order to survive and thrive. Why not make it easier for us all by learning how to show empathy, love, and compassion during times of emotional distress?
While our journeys are unique, our feelings are universal. There is nothing you have felt which has not been felt by millions of people before you. Let’s let our stories and struggles bring us together, rather than divide us.