Empathy…For Yourself AND Others

Feb 1, 2018 by

Empathy…For Yourself AND Others

When I am going through a particularly difficult time or am feeling depressed about my condition and my health, I have found that the best way to pull myself out of it is to remind myself of the world around me.

Remembering that everyone is struggling with their own pain, whether due to a chronic condition, a life-threatening condition, or something not health related at all, puts me in check. It reorients my mindset and makes me grateful for all of the things that I do have in life.

It is also a constant reminder that I need to cut other people some slack, just the way I sometimes need them to cut me slack.  I don’t go around announcing my condition – most people I know and work with are not even aware that I have it. And I’ve suffered for that omission, by pushing myself too hard and letting people down without even explaining why.

So how do I know what the people around me are struggling with on a daily basis? How do I know that a single comment, attitude, or action is not being influenced by something much larger? And who am I to believe that what I am struggling with is worse than the next person?

I’m conducting an exercise in empathy, and I thought I’d invite you to come along.

Walking the Walk

Here is a video that I’ve shared countless times. It is a training video from the Mayo Clinic, attempting to teach employees about the importance of empathy and understanding. I have no idea how effective it was as a training strategy, but every time I watch it, it is a firm reminder to check myself and my responses to the people around me. Sometimes I watch it just to keep myself grounded.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cDDWvj_q-o8

Even the opening quote grabs you in an unusual way: “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” – Henry David Thoreau

The View From the Other Side of the Desk

Another practice in empathy that I am reminded of every day at work is for an unexpected group of people – our doctors. We all expect our doctors to be more than human, but they are just as human as we are.

They wake up in the morning, go to work, and experience all of the emotions that we experience. They are not infallible. They question themselves. They experience imposter syndrome. They have a fear of failing or disappointing the patients that need them the most.

I’ve discussed this before in another set of articles about self-advocacy. Sometimes the person we consider the least like us is the one we should try the hardest to understand. It could make a world of difference for our own mental and physical health.

Take a look at this letter from a doctor that admits to all of his imperfections, and apologizes for the difficulties and misunderstandings that this causes for those of us with chronic conditions.  It may change your perspective on the relationship that you have with your doctors.

http://more-distractible.org/musings/2010/07/14/a-letter-to-patients-with-chronic-disease

Re-Setting the Focus

The mantra of our society is to be kind to yourself by recognizing your limitations and not holding yourself to unattainable standards. This is important, particularly for those with health limitations that need to be acknowledged. Unfortunately, the narrative forgets to include the piece about being kind to others as well.

I’ve found that it can be especially difficult to remember the needs of others when my gastroparesis is at its worst. But if I want others to understand my needs, I need to remember to understand theirs.

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time training myself to think outside of my current situation – to think of others and their experiences when mine are particularly bad. This takes me out of my current state and places me in an entirely different mindset. I no longer wallow in my own situation and feelings, but instead force my brain to ponder things other than myself.

Sometimes I go back to articles like the one written by this doctor. Other times I play the empathy video. Other times I put my efforts into helping someone else out with a difficult situation. Whatever the approach, practicing empathy for others can improve your outlook while also distracting you from yourself.

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