A video from YouTuber Anna Akana got me thinking a bit about empathy.
Empathy is one of the most important human values a person can possess — that's even backed by science.
Seriously, thank humanity's collective ability to put ourselves in others' shoes for the fact that our everyday lives (hopefully) don't resemble a YouTube comment thread gone bad.
Studies have shown that people who have high social competency (empathy) scores as children turn out to lead more successful adult lives. In August, I wrote about the effect stress has on our ability to empathize with others.
But in all this talk about empathy, we tend to gloss over how we can get better at being empathetic in our daily lives. Let's fix that.
One way to up your ability to empathize with others is to take stock of what's happening in your life.
It's really easy to focus on the negative aspects of life and overlook the good. Of course, life's negatives are totally legitimate, and I'm not at all suggesting anyone erase that by appealing to worse problems (i.e., "What are you complaining about? So many others have it so much worse!") because really, 1) how has that ever helped? and 2) it's not a competition.
What I'm suggesting is that you take stock of the good and the bad. Go ahead, give it a try. It might look something like this (these are just examples):
Now, does the good stuff in the right column cancel out the left? Of course not. This is just meant to help you take stock of the complexities of life.
Speaking as someone who lives with sometimes severe bouts of depression and anxiety, this is one of the few "tricks" that's helped stop me from spiraling into a really dark place.
How does this help build empathy? It helps us grasp how our circumstances may differ from someone else's.
A great video from YouTube personality Anna Akana breaks this down in a really fun, creative way. Just as I did in the chart above, Anna goes through some of the positive factors that exist in her life. Most importantly, she gives focus to the positives that simply exist as "luck of the draw" like where she was born and what kind of family she was born into.
Those factors, sometimes referred to as "privileges," help shape the rest of her life — both the positives and negatives.
Once you understand and acknowledge how your life is affected by privilege, you can reverse engineer your way into strangers' shoes.
For a long time, I failed to appreciate the privileges I have, some as simple as being born in the U.S. as opposed to a war-torn country like Syria. It actually wasn't until the early 2000s when I spent time thinking about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that I even considered I had in any way benefited from being born a U.S. citizen.
Had I been born in Syria, Afghanistan, or Iraq, or heck, even somewhere not in the midst of an ongoing conflict like Ireland or Japan, my life would certainly be significantly different. I have pure, unearned luck to thank for that. So in knowing that, and in being thankful for that, I can see where my empathy is lacking, and fix it.
This is why when someone says something like "Oh, we're all just people" or "I don't see color" in response to someone else pointing out sexism or racism, for example, they're kind of missing the point of being empathetic. The fact is that we're not all afforded the same opportunities, and sometimes it really does come down to things like race, gender, or sexual orientation — all beyond our control.
In order to live in a more peaceful world, we need to acknowledge how we're different from one another, so that we can have empathy for one another. And once you've acknowledged these differences, you can use that knowledge for good to help combat discrimination.
Take time to make that list of things in life that have shaped you and that you're truly thankful for. You'll be a better person for it.
For me, that includes being thankful for having a loving family, a middle-class upbringing, never having had to worry about being discriminated against because of the color of my skin, a job I truly enjoy, the good fortune to have been able to afford college, and so much more.
I understand that these factors aren't universal. I understand that some of these — like not having to worry about racism, for instance — have led to my life being a bit different than that of a woman of color. Acknowledging these differences is the first step to becoming a more empathetic person.