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Growth Through Empathy by Charity Hagains MA, LPC-S

I have been obsessed with personal growth for years.  This statement probably isn’t all that shocking being that I am a therapist, and growth is kind of our thing.  Being the self starter, type A personality that I am, I seek out ways to improve myself through my own actions.  I monitor my thinking, surround myself with inspiration and encouragement, read everything I can about self improvement, and then put that learning into action daily.  I develop routines for my self care, have a special space in my home that is dedicated to it, and I use all my tools in an effort to be my best self so I can live my best life.  But here’s the thing, all of that, it’s all about ME. Me, me, me, me, me. Don’t get me wrong I love me some me, but if my growth was 100% focused on me, I would probably explode.  

 

For our growth to happen, we must mature–physically, socially, and most importantly, emotionally.  Emotional maturity demands we think outside of ourselves, inviting others and their own emotions into our journey.  When we step outside of ourselves and our own needs, lending a piece of ourselves to another, we open up an opportunity for growth through that connection.  Acknowledging another’s validity as a human being is powerful, not only for them but for you as well. It is easier to believe other people see you as valid when you are doing the same to them.  The opposite is also true. If you view others through a critical lens, it is easier for you to imagine they too are seeing you critically and judging you as harshly as you have judged them. The growth mindset is based on a secure sense of self.  This security allows you to explore new ways of thinking, being, behaving, and connecting. The greatest way we can connect with another person is through empathy and validation.

 

Empathy may not come naturally for you, and that’s okay.  Thankfully, empathy skills can be taught and improved upon.  We can intentionally increase our empathy levels for other people and in doing so we grow personally.  We feel more connected not only to those around us but to ourselves as well. If you feel that being empathetic isn’t really in your wheelhouse, here are a few ways you can increase your empathy and validation skill set.

 

  • Imagine yourself in the same situation
    • For example, if a friend says they have been having difficulties with their spouse and tells you about one of their recent arguments, try imagining what that was like for him or her in that moment.  
  • Don’t try to fix the situation
    • There is no quicker way to shut a person down than offering unsolicited advice.  Allow yourself to imagine what being in that situation would feel like, but do so without trying to fix the problem.  Waiting until a person asks for your opinion on what to do shows that you trust them to know what they need to do to make this better, and you respect their choices and emotions.  
  • Don’t try to change their feelings about the situation
    • Like trying to fix something for another person, trying to change someone’s emotions will leave them feeling invalidated and detached. This can also create a false belief within you that you aren’t allowed to feel uncomfortable emotions or express negativity. Instead, allow the person to lean into their feelings without you having to save them from negative or uncomfortable emotions.  Remember they won’t feel bad forever. If that’s how they feel at the moment, trying to cheer them up will only drive them further away. You don’t have to agree with their reaction, simply allow it.
  • Use a generous hypothesis  
    • In any circumstance, we can practice giving others a generous hypothesis regarding their motives, background, reasoning, etc.  It can be so easy to do the opposite. “That homeless man isn’t even trying to get a job.” “You wouldn’t be in this bad relationship if you would just have a backbone and leave.”  “He’s always late for work because he is lazy and doesn’t have any work ethic.” These negative narratives we recite about other people can damage us internally, not to mention fracture any chance of a healthy and happy relationship with others.  Practicing generosity in our thoughts opens us up to more connected and positive relationships, not to mention we begin to believe others are also doing the same for us. “That homeless man looks kind even though he is clearly going through what has to be a difficult time in his life.” “She wants her relationship to be healthy and fulfilling so deeply that she is willing to stick with it even when it’s hard.” “He probably has a lot going on in his home life since he is late everyday.  It must be so stressful for him.” Changing how we look at others changes our own perspectives of ourselves–allowing continued growth.

 

I know it seems counterintuitive to use caring for other people as a personal growth tool.  It is kind of like the argument that there is no selfless good deed because doing something good for others benefits us as well.  But honestly, who cares? Being empathic and validating has benefits for us as well as others, and some of the best things in life are designed to help the many rather than the few.  Personal growth can not happen in a vacuum. Likewise, it won’t happen to us, personal growth has to be intentional, meaning we have to work for it. Change and maturity is not always comfortable or easy, but it is always worth it!

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