Most of us are familiar with the concept, “you don’t know what another goes through unless you walk in their shoes.” I try to remind myself of this with every encounter I have. If the cashier is acting rude, I assume they had a bad morning. Someone cuts me off, maybe they’re late, stressed and rushing. I’ve been there too.
I always try to give the benefit of the doubt. Even if my assumptions aren’t true, believing there is an explanation, excusable or not, for someone’s actions brings me back to the truth. We’re all human. We feel, we react, we make mistakes but we can try to understand each other.
I’ve met too many people throughout my 27 years on this planet who struggle to grasp the misfortunes of others. “You don’t know what a hard life is because you ___.” Filling in the blank with anything they identify as a stress-free life. I try to imagine the feelings of someone who doesn’t attempt to understand the pain and hurting of the people around them. Having a closed, one-track mind to the equations for success in another person’s life, let alone their own. That must feel incredibly overwhelming, constantly chasing one recipe for happiness, most likely without the ingredients they tell themselves they need.
It would seem to be more difficult to relate to others feeling limited to such specific requirements for a fulfilling life. Left feeling lonely and disassociated from the world. That way of thinking, that sense of unfairness, would make me feel angry, burdened or even hopeless. Opportunities can be stripped away or presented to us simply by our attitude.
The people I meet who have open minds always seem to have a healthier well-being. More optimism for positive change and appreciation for the simple things. More connections to people, animals, the universe. More connections to life itself. Feeling alive and awake produces unstoppable energy. The kind of energy that takes your hands and dances with you. Uplifts your spirit and tells you you can do anything you set your mind to.
This is why I believe it is so important to be vulnerable. To express our feelings to others. While we don’t owe anyone an explanation for our personal thoughts and emotions, sharing them might spread more understanding to more people. We all have emotions, and we can use them to relate to each other.
The more we talk about our feelings, what brings up negative emotions and why, the easier it will become to identify which actions lead to feeling good. The classic “I statements” we learned as children truly are a more straightforward approach to understanding each other. With understanding comes support. Weight we each carry can be alleviated with this support. This is how we become stronger together.
For people who struggle with empathy, don’t worry. Empathy can be learned. Studying and identifying emotions in others and learning how to appropriately respond to those emotions can increase cognitive, emotional and behavioral empathy. Opening doors to more authentic and meaningful connections. Settling uncomfortable emotions with deeper understanding. The more we understand each other, the more good we can do for each other.
So my suggestion is to lead with vulnerability. Express your thoughts and feelings so others can tune in. Make sharing normal so those who struggle to empathize can be exposed to the process. But if you’re left to guessing, ask yourself what you don’t know about others. Always leave room for further understanding.
If we lived in a world where everyone was motivated to understand each other and change their behavior to hurt each other less, I truly believe crime, pollution, hate and damage of all kinds would diminish. We would each feel more comfortable living the life we want and deserve. We would feel free and loved, to me some of the most potent ingredients to a happy life.