Empathy is the ability to understand a person’s feelings or situation. This is different than identification where you actually identify with a person’s feelings. “Oh, I felt just like that.” As a psychiatrist, it is important to have empathy, less so identification.
Some people have a natural gift for empathy, just like some people have a natural gift for playing a piano. With that said, just like learning to play the piano empathy can be taught.
So where am I going with this? Hold on, I’m about to talk about Pella windows. What!? In fact, I’m going to try to bridge the theme of Pella windows with empathy and then join the two topics in what I think is a disturbing trend that I see in society. I’m doing this at around 5 AM in the morning, sitting in Starbucks, so we will see how this goes.
Many months ago my friend Tom generously offered to put in new windows at my circa 1984 house. Windows were not urgently needed, but they were aging. About 6 weeks ago they were custom ordered through Pella. They now reside in my garage, waiting to be installed. The initial install date was last week, but delays with his carpentry crew pushed the date up to this week, specifically yesterday.
Yesterday it rained, and the windows could not be installed. Today it rained, and the windows could not be installed. I am hopeful that the process will start tomorrow.
I know Tom, and I know that the windows will be installed as soon as possible. The only aggravation that I feel centers on the desire to get the job done. I’m one of those people who likes to check boxes off when a task is completed.
Tom has told me stories of customers who seem to ignore the reality that life happens. If a cabinet is delayed, or if a part is on order it can halt a remodel. Many people understand this, but other become incensed and angry. They assume that it is Tom’s fault. Their attitude is one of condescending superiority. They are unable to move past their own inconvenience and understand that delays also impact Tom’s bottom line. When work is not done payments are not made. He wants to finish a project just as much as his customers wants a project finished.
As a professional, I have been fortunate that most of my patients have been respectful of my time and expertise. However, I can also face individuals with a lack of empathy. The person who calls at 3 AM in the morning because they can’t sleep. The individual who becomes insulting and angry because they had to wait a few hours to get a return call, not caring that I’m seeing other patients. The patient who feels that I should have an encyclopedic memory of their past and present medications when I get a call from them on a Sunday afternoon.
A lack of empathy not only impacts the connections with the people around us, it also directly impacts us. I understand that it is impossible to install windows when it is raining. I feel sorry for myself, but I also feel sorry for Tom. We can bond over our mutual disappointment. However, what if my attitude was different? What if I wanted what I wanted, and I didn’t care what was going on with the other person (in this case Tom)? Now I’m frustrated and angry. I feel like a victim. I may act-out those feelings with anger or threats. Now everyone is upset. My day is ruined. I can’t even enjoy the end result of getting new windows. You can see that empathy is not only important for our connections, it is also important for our own personal well being.
I might suggest that when you are frustrated by a situation to “try to put on the other person’s shoes,” for a moment. Get a feeling for what they are going through and try to connect to those feelings. Approach the situation and the person with your new understanding. More often than not you will be a happier person and you will have a better outcome.