It is no secret that 2020 was a year that threw our lives out of control; between the isolation, job adjustments and genuine fear of sickness, many relationships in our lives have changed in that time. Whether we want to bring in new relationships, reconnect with loved ones or build stronger ties to those around us; the most powerful tool at our disposal is our empathy. In such hard times however, how can we use understanding others’ emotions and experiences to deepen our social bonds?
Understanding Others Can Help Us Deal Better with Our Own Emotions
One of the greatest boons of empathy is actually not directed at the people we wish to build bonds with, but ourselves. How often have we encountered a person that just seemed to bother us on every level? No matter how much time passes, energy is spent, and kindness exchanged, there just never seems to be a level of common ground? Before we can jump to the conclusion that this person is toxic, or a lost cause, we should examine our own emotional reactions and see if that person is a mirror to us. Often times; the people that frustrate us the most remind us of the things that we would like to think that we moved on from long ago.
If we encounter someone like this, there are three simple steps to take to make sure that we are not projecting our own feelings onto them:
Step One - Breathing
The first step is breathing, taking a few deep breaths to take yourself out of the situation is an easy way not to react prematurely when we do not understand the full scope of the situation. It can be as long or as short as you like. Taking that moment of mindfulness, can help soothe the temporary frustration of having to deal with that person.
But what if we breathe, close our eyes and still just want to shake someone? Well, that’s when we move to step two - removing ourselves from the situation.
Step Two - Removal
In most circumstances, people can find reason to exit a situation they are uncomfortable with. There is no reason to act when someone is affecting our energies, as it is difficult if not impossible to present ourselves in our best light. Find any excuse, use the restroom, step outside for a breath of fresh air or if you need to step back entirely, leave the space and come back to the conversation when we have completely calmed down. Save for select situations, there is no reason to force ourselves to deal with a person before we are ready to do so.
Step Three - Reflect
The last step, and most important: Reflect. Think of the situation from the other person’s perspective and why it drew that kind of reaction. Did Nancy mean to be rude? Or was that just a reminder of something from our past? Are the red flags we are seeing in our current relationship based on the one we are actually in? Or is it from that ex that broke our heart all those years ago?
Taking the time to ask ourselves the “why’s” of a situation, can help keep relationships flowing smoothly for our own benefit and others.
If We Feel That Something is Bothering Someone, There Probably Is
While it isn’t always apparent what is bothering someone, humans as a social species are usually skilled at picking up subtle nuances in people’s behavior, even more so when we know them well. While it is hard to take a step back and not force the issue, if we know that someone is in pain, sometimes the best approach is the gentle one:
“Hey, are you okay? It seems like something is bothering you.”
A simple sentence, but one of the most powerful when it comes to getting to know others. It not only shows that we care, but it also sets the space for that person to come to us when they are ready to talk about it. We have no idea the amount of baggage someone has, and everyone handles their emotions differently. With this simple phrase though, it gives someone license to deal with their emotions at the rate at which they are ready to. There is no need to force it if they are not ready. With some problems, it’s better to be available to help rather than feel compelled to do so.
Once the stage has been set, leave the issue alone. When we really care about someone’s relationship with us, it’s easy to assume responsibility for the way they are feeling. Often, things are far more complicated than that. Our roommate probably doesn’t hate us, they may be having trouble with money or had a hard week at work. Our romantic partner is probably not taking space from us this weekend because it means our relationship is fading, they may just be socially exhausted. Everyone knows already; when the boss is upset, it’s usually not solely due to our work performance. Why would those closest to us be any different?
Self-forgiveness as the Greatest Expression of Empathy
While it can be hard to forgive others, oftentimes the hardest thing to forgive is our own actions and feelings. Taking care of and understanding others are great things. Self-care and healthy boundaries are far greater. If our goal is to build stronger relationships with other people in a sustainable way, then we must also learn to recognize when we can do so. Many of our most shameful moments, actions and assumptions are born out of our own insecurities just waiting to find expression as soon as they are given the slightest cause to do so. When we forgive ourselves for our faults, we recognize them, and it allows us to accept our limitations without feeling ashamed. Doing so frees up a greater part of our energy to flow with the situation and be more patient with others.
While we all experience empathy in different ways, there is no situation in which self-reflection, intuition, and forgiveness cannot bring us closer to those around us. Using these three tools, may we all leave 2021 with stronger relationships than we entered it with.