In the last 13 years, I have had the opportunity to learn an incredibly valuable lesson. This lesson was painful, confusing, but ultimately incredibly fulfilling. It began with my son’s diagnosis of autism. What’s the lesson you ask? Seeing through another person’s eyes. Empathy. And I have found this to be powerfully helpful in my relationships with everyone in my life. And in a way that I had never really thought about before.
See I have empathy. I always have. It’s an obvious thing for me to not just understand how someone else feels in a situation but to feel it with them. In fact, the closer I am to a person the more keenly I feel it. But this lesson I learned added to this surface-level understanding of empathy. And it’s the addition I want to focus on in this blog post because understanding this can be powerful in your closest relationships.
Let’s start with what empathy is. It’s different from sympathy in that it’s not just a logical cognitive understanding of how someone feels. It’s legit feeling it with them. It’s crying when you see someone else cry. That’s empathy. Sympathy is more like; I totally understand why you are angry because you lost your job. Sympathy is sort of that, “God that really sucks” response to another person’s issue or challenge. But there’s no real emotional connection in it. Nor does it really inspire you to do anything about it. With empathy it’s not just an understanding of someone’s anger that they lost their job, it’s also being angry with them about it. Or sad, or whatever and then being motivated to help or support in some way.
See the difference?
It’s subtle but it’s important. Now, why is this important and valuable? The reason is that it helps you have stronger and closer relationships, but how? What about empathy helps that happen? AND what does that really look like day to day? It doesn’t really inspire you to get good at something if the only thing you are motivated by is some vague assurance that it’ll be better when you do it.
What the hell does “better” even mean?
And there’s a dark side to empathy too that I want to explore. I believe in moderation for the most part, or at least to try and practice things, middle of the road. Leaning too far left or right usually pulls us off course. Usually. Empathy is one thing that definitely can. Both by having too much, and not having enough.
So let’s consider the positive side first, shall we? How and why is empathy helpful?
Well, it builds rapport and strengths relationships. Because when we feel for other people we want to help them. And then they want to help us. And then we do more and they do and we do then they do...and so it goes. And there is a ripple effect on this. When you do something for one person because you feel them then the other people they already have relationships with feel a sense of connection to you. And then community, or family starts. Teamwork is born. This is really important because when humans were first starting out if we didn’t work together socially we would have never made it. We are not faster, or stronger, or more adapt physically in any way to other animals. We were able to do all the things we have done because of creativity, imagination, and social engagement/relationships.
This makes perfect logical sense. There are a few different types of empathy and they each focus on different things but in a nutshell, it’s about being able to step into another person’s shoes and feel how they feel, that is to say, understand, and feel with them. It allows us to feel connection, validation, and support. This leads us to take action with behavior that is helpful, compassionate, and altruistic. Let’s look at some examples.
Here’s a simple one. Just today I was discussing with a co-worker about some anxiety I was feeling at work. I explained the situation and vented for a bit about why it was happening. She related to me. She shared my feelings back to me and expressed her understanding and compassion for what was happening. She did this by offering her own personal experience that was similar to mine. That’s what allows people to relate to one another and then feel a connection. The connection comes from a shared experience. Nothing draws people together like a shared experience. The more shared experiences we have, and the more intense the emotion surrounding them, the more empathy, the stronger the relationship.
This is the nature of empathy. Now as I said, there are different types of empathy. And in the best situations, empathy leads to helping behavior. In my example above we were simply finding commonalities and relatability between each other. But if a genuine problem showed up for this individual now we would both be more apt to help each other out. And so the relationship deepens.
I don’t mean to infer that every engagement you have with others where you feel empathy for them is going to develop into a powerful and intimate relationship. In the example above, while I like my coworker very much, and would indeed step in to help her at work, in truth we don’t know each other well and don’t have bonds outside of the office. So the depth of that relationship ends. HOWEVER - the same processes are in effect for your children, your spouse or partner, your parents, etc. These are deeply intimate relationships. And most of them (outside of child/parent) began with being able to relate to each other and having empathy for one another. Empathy allows us to relate to one another.
At this point, I don’t think I’ve said anything that isn’t self-evident. It’s so obvious that some people don’t think it needs to be addressed but I disagree. When we aren’t fully consciously aware, then we don’t always act in alignment with what we actually want and believe. So I think pointing out these obvious points is important so we remember them in our interactions with others.
This is a surface-level understanding of the benefit of empathy. But like everything; empathy has a positive and a negative side. Let’s take a look at that for a minute.
The negative comes in two flavors; too much empathy and not enough.
Most studies indicate that individuals that don’t have empathy are frequently labeled in the sociopath, psychopath, or narcissistic space. Even these three have huge levels of difference but frequently it’s the outcome you would expect; if you can’t feel for another person you don’t care that they are in pain. This area of psychology is huge and complex so I’m not going to try and cliff notes it...but it does happen. There are people that don’t show empathy and ultimately that means that can’t feel for another person in pain. This is an obvious issue. It can and does lead to extremely selfish behavior. It limits the ability to relate to others and by extension, very little cooperation and support occur.
The other dark side of empathy is actually having too much. This creates for some people a kind of deer in headlight effect in that they are so overwhelmed with another’s emotions that they can’t respond at all. It’s like they freeze and they can’t think because they are just swimming in the feelings. This can also cause trouble for people that aren’t able to separate their emotions from another person. So they don’t know where their feelings start and another person’s begin. This is the type of set up that leads to things like codependency. So it is possible to feel too much for a person.
It’s important to feel for other people. It brings grace, forgiveness and support, validation, and love. But when you do that to such an extent that you no longer make your own choices you might be blind by other’s emotions. Like everything, with empathy it’s best to shoot for moderation.
Ok, that’s the overview. But what was the lesson I got from my son?
It starts with something called the Platinum Rule. Have you heard of it?
It takes the Golden Rule and turns it on its head. We all know the Golden Rule - treat others the way you want to be treated. Or some variation. And that variation is HUGE because this rule exists in every faith I’ve ever heard of in some way shape or form. (check it out it is amazing - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Rule)
But the problem with the Golden Rule is the assumption that everyone wants the same thing. And while that is true in the sense of what people want I think. It is not true in terms of how people get it. Here is where the Platinum rule comes in. Developed by Dr. Tony Alessandra, the Platinum Rules says treat others the way they want to be treated. Do you see the obvious difference here? That, that right there was my lesson.
See - my son sees the world differently from me. He has autism and while he wants all the same things I do; to feel loved, appreciated, and that he belongs, what makes him feel that way is not the same as me. We all know that people see the world differently but when we don’t take the time to consider what that actually means we miss the value in knowing it. And with my son you can’t NOT know it. He sees the world WAY different from me. His understanding of social interactions and norms is so different that he interprets the things that go on around him in really interesting ways. Things that would make me so upset, he doesn’t even really notice.
For example; my divorce. My son really loves his father. My ex-husband really loves his son. When the divorce happened and we moved to different homes it was apparent that my son got excited when he would see his dad. That excitement made me feel like he must miss his dad really significantly when he was gone, and I’m sure he does. But not in the same way others would. Because my son didn’t have these social norms about family, it was just the way it was. It didn’t cause my son to stress in the same way. He wasn’t worried about the same things or having the same thoughts. You could tell he missed his dad, but it wasn’t the same. The fact that it wasn’t the same for my son made it easier for me to not feel anger at the situation. My son experiences the world differently from me. When you have a very close relationship with a person that sees the world so differently from you can’t help but understand the Platinum Rule in a very real way. For example; birthday parties. Big shout out if you have planned a birthday party, or any other celebration for your child when THEY don’t want it. Cause you know what -we threw the party for us - and it’s ok (big hugs), but some children legitimately don’t care or even want one.
My son wants to be loved. But how do I treat him so that he feels love? Most people would do things that make them feel loved (read 5 Love Languages) but my son doesn’t always like those things. Some individuals on the spectrum don’t want to be hugged much or touched. Some want to crawl into your body and be squeezed. Some don’t really care about gifts, (I mean for reals, 3-year olds that don’t care about anything you really bought them except maybe food).
When you experience that difference you are truly left wondering about it because in some instances it can be distressing to feel like your child (or whoever) doesn’t think the same way about something that seemingly the whole rest of the world feels a certain way about. That’s when the platinum rule slaps you in the face and gives you the wake-up call you need. To really be empathetic you need to think from the other person’s perspective and preferences. Not from yours.
The platinum rule - treat others the way THEY want to be treated.
For my son, he feels belonging and loved when we cuddle together. For my stepdaughter, she feels belonging and loved when she can just be in the same room with others, she doesn’t necessarily like to be touched. And the reason this is so obvious with a person with special needs is that they might not be able to “pretend” for social appearances. If my son doesn’t like something, he tells you. He isn’t going to try and fake it to protect your feelings. LOL, the same holds true for my stepdaughter.
In a previous post, I talked about the massive shift in meaning I made with my son’s diagnosis, a large part of that shift came from understanding this. That my son does not, and will never, see the world as I do. But he is still a magnificent and glorious little (well big now) guy. This little shift in perspective can make major changes to all your relationships. Even the ones not close to you.
Think of the last thing you did for someone close to you that maybe they didn’t seem to care about. Now ask yourself, with everything you know about this person, was what you did important to them? Is there value there for them?
This is when the real value of this rule, and the lesson I learned, revealed itself. It was so obvious with my son. But slowly you start to see that it really does apply to everyone in subtle ways.
My partner loves food and cooking and wine. He feels his world through it. He feels that food and the care and preparation of it in the same way I view and value personal development and self-inquiry. Neither of us loves the one thing with as much gusto as the other. I appreciate amazing food. My partner appreciates self-inquiry...but it’s not the same. As soon as we tune into that we can show up for each other in really tremendous ways. I can pay attention to things I wouldn’t have before to show up for him. And he can do the same for me.
And it doesn’t require me to have the same level of love for something as him. It only requires that I recognize that it means more to him than to me. And vice versa.
And the same for your kids y’all. Your child is NOT you. You may be similar in many many ways. You likely have commonalities in attitude, mannerism, behavior. But you are NOT the same. Your child sees value in things that you do not and vice versa. When you can learn to dial into that without judgment but curiosity and find what makes them tick and why??? DUDE - a whole new fucking WORLD opens up on intimacy in your relationship with your kiddo.
And understanding and seeing how other people see the world doesn’t mean that they aren’t capable of the same things as you, or that they want different things than you. What is different is the meaning behind things, the reasons for things, the experience of things. And it doesn’t mean that people are bad for being different - it means we can grow into a new understanding of what the world means to us.
For example one of the reasons I so denied my son’s diagnosis of autism was because he didn’t “act” like someone with autism. This is an ignorant perspective. It was denial because I was afraid. First - acting “autistic” isn’t even real, and second I made terrible assumptions that limited my son’s ability to feel because he had autism. People on the spectrum can and do feel empathy. They simply experience it differently. They can and do have meaningful relationships. They just might look different from typical ones. But that difference allows all of us to show greater love, compassion, and empathy with everyone in the world.
If you work for a global company this shows up with cultural differences with colleagues.
If you are in bi-racial or multi-cultural relationships it shows up with cultural differences with your friends or partner.
If you are living in a large urban city with huge diversity this shows up with your neighbors and community.
If you are a citizen of this world right now then it shows up with the entire effing planet.
Even within your own family, you will have differences in perspective. Learning, understanding, and feeling those differences is REAL empathy. That’s what it really means to see from another person’s point of view. To walk in another person’s shoes. It’s asking yourself questions like; who are they? What’s important to them? How do they act when they are afraid, how do they act when they are happy? What gets them excited? What shuts them down? When do they feel comfortable? When do they feel threatened? What helps? What hurts?
Then we can make comparisons between ourselves and that other person. When I feel x about this thing...they feel y about the same thing. How can I use that to be a better; friend, parent, partner, colleague?
And on and on it goes until you have this amazingly rich, glorious, vibrant pool of knowledge and experience to draw and learn from. To explore and share with.
And it’s amazing.
So go put this rule into practice. Learn about the people around you and figure out what they want. Really take some time to see the world through their eyes. To walk a mile in their shoes.
It’s worth the trip.
Don’t forget -
Learn more at YouTube - https://youtu.be/bCx6wWV2SOc