Tune Into Others

Tune Into Others

What Are They Feeling?

The Practice:
Tune into others.

Why?

Imagine a world in which people interacted with each other like ants or fish. Imagine a day at work like this, or in your family, aware of the surface behavior of the people around you but oblivious to their inner life while they remain unmoved by your own.

That’s a world without empathy.

Empathic breakdowns shake the foundation of a relationship; just recall a time you felt misunderstood – or even worse, a time when the other person couldn’t care less about understanding you.  In particular, anyone who is vulnerable (e.g., children, the elderly) has a profound need for empathy, and when it’s a thin soup or missing altogether, that’s very disturbing. In my experience as a therapist, poor empathy is the core problem in most troubled couples or families; without it, nothing good is likely to happen; with it, even the toughest issues can be resolved.

Empathy gives you a feeling for what it’s like to be another person. When you are empathic, even quietly and tacitly, that tells the other person that he or she exists for you as a being, as a Thou to your I. That’s usually what people most want to know; it’s more fundamental than whatever topic is on the table.

Empathy is soothing, calming, bridge-building; when it’s present, it’s much easier to work through things. Empathy gives you lots of useful information, like what’s most important to others or what’s really bothering them.

How?

This week, repeatedly tune into the interior of the people around you; “empathy moments” often take just a few seconds.

To help yourself, remember that empathy is not agreement or approval. You can tune into someone who hurt you or is irritating; you’re not waiving your rights! Nor do you have to solve the other person’s problem.

Also know that empathy is completely natural. As we evolved, the brain developed three circuits (loosely defined) for empathy that simulate the actions, emotions, and thoughts of others. For example, when you experience an emotion, a part of your brain called the insula lights up; remarkably, when you see emotions in others, some of the same neurons in your insula activate as well. The result is you get a taste of what they’re feeling. You were born empathic.

Start by centering yourself so you don’t feel overwhelmed; studies have found that, paradoxically, a little feeling of detachment actually promotes empathy; as Robert Frost wrote, fences make for good neighbors. Then open up to other people, letting their inner life flow through you like wind through the leaves of a deeply rooted tree.

Tune into their breathing, posture, gestures, actions. Imagine what it would feel like to move your own body in the same ways.

Tune into their emotions, particularly the softer ones underneath verbal positions or anger. Watch the eyes closely; human eyes are the most expressive of any species on our planet. Open up to your own gut feelings, which could be resonating with those of other people. Ask yourself what you would be feeling if you were them.

Tune into their thoughts, memories, expectations, needs, and intentions. Form little hypotheses in your mind about what could be going on over there. Take into account what you know about their personal history – including with you – and their temperament, priorities, hot buttons. Be curious and look beneath the surface.

As appropriate, check out your empathic intuitions. Ask simple questions, like: Were you feeling ____ ? Did you want ____ ? Did you feel pulled between ____ and ____ ? Be respectful, not persuasive or prosecutorial. Don’t muddle empathy with asserting your own views or needs; do that part later.

Stay with it. Empathy is a kind of mindfulness practice, sustaining attention this time to someone else’s inner world.

And when it’s your turn to receive empathy, you’ll know better what it is you are asking for.

The best way to get empathy is to give it.



Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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