Saturday, June 15, 2013

A Path to Empathy - Wait, How Did I Get Here?

One year ago I was reveling in the excitement of self directed learning, yet I isolated myself from the emotional consequences of what I was learning.  Since then, I have undergone an empathetic awakening like nothing I have experienced in my memory.  Today, I find myself in the position of being a philosophical mentor to most everyone around me.  Strangely, while I command much respect for my incisive thinking into complex emotional struggles, I find my attitude softened, with a humble humility pervading my communication tone and methodology.


A year ago, while I was learning all about the mechanics of logic, economics, politics, philosophy, psychology, and relationships, I was energized, but at the same time disconnected from my feelings on the subjects.  I had very little empathy for my emotions and history, and even less for the emotions and histories of others, and as such, I was brash and defiant in my absorption and communication of my new-found studies.  I see this very clearly in the communication style I was utilizing at that time.  I would inject huge amounts of passion and knowledge into my ideas, yet my delivery methodology made no reference to who my audience was, nor how they may feel about the subjects being discussed.

I had changed so much in one year.  I knew what the change was, I had learned empathy: first for my self, my history, and my emotions, and then as a result I found empathy for the complexity, histories, and emotions of others.  But how did I learn this self-empathy?  I really did not know, that it until two days ago.

I absolutely love sharing deep meaningful communication with others.  I have long conversations as often as I find the opportunity.  These conversations can average three hours.  The one on this past Thursday ran almost five hours.  What I love about these talks is the depth of connection.  In choosing one subject, and then drilling down deep into the topic using endless curiosity  I inevitably learn things about myself which I did not yet realize.  As I keep asking "I wonder why?", and keep digging deeper with the conversation partner, new ideas, new metaphors, new connections start to appear in my mind.

I have long noticed the fact that there are no walls between topics or subjects in our mind.  We all have one big neural network, and as such our ideas, emotions, and connections freely flow back and forth as waves across our brains.  This truth results in that digging down into the details of one subject ends up being a parallel metaphor for digging down into ALL subjects.  (I find this freaky, and amazing.)

During that five hour conversation last Thursday my discussion partner and I found our curiosity centering on empathy, what it is and how to develop it.  With my partner's help I was able to take a swing at synthesizing what I did to develop my empathy.  Like most giant realizations it came down a simple, seemingly inconsequential answer.


Empathy, I have found, is just honesty joined with curiosity.  That's it.  It is actually frustratingly simple.  In fact, in our conversation we bumped up against this frustration quite a bit.  It is very frustrating to find big ideas which are simple.  We have been told over and over again that big ideas are hard and complicated; they take years of study under genius experts to learn and implement.  When one is simple, we become very disoriented.  Beyond that, when an idea is critical and simple, yet universally unknown, we become very frustrated.

Why is empathy as simple as honesty combined with curiosity?  I already understood that empathy for others starts with empathy for my self.  But who is my self?  Even stranger, who are my selves?  Was I a thing to be understood, or was I a complex web of things never to be understood?  Honesty and curiousity were about to unlock the truth.

Our Parts - A MEcosystem

We all pretty much know who we think we are.  We we are the part of us who thinks and interacts.  We also know, however, that we are each so much more.  What part of us dreams?  What part of us drives us home while we are distracted?  What part of us congratulates or attacks us for our choices?  What part of us has us jump when spooked, or blush when self-conscious?  Internal Family Systems is a psychological theory which seeks to identify these other parts of ourselves and in turn get to know them.

It turns out, these parts already know us, even if we don't know them.  What do they think of us?  Do they think we are honest?  Do they think we are curious?  Do they think we respect them?  Do they they think we ignore them?  To they think we stand on their shoulders?  Do they think we keep them locked away in cages?  Do they see each of us as a partner, or a threat?

What if you and I are only about 20% of our minds?  What if these other parts are the other 80%?  If we don't embrace and respect these other parts, will they trust us?  In turn, will we trust ourselves, or will we feel split?

The Others

So now we see them, we hear them.  Shadows and voices in the dark corners of our minds.  They act brashly and without warning.  The throw up defenses when we feel attached.  They exaggerate when we feel helpless.  They lash out when we feel threatened.  Sometimes they are all yelling at once while we feel frozen and indecisive.  Sometimes they are all silent when all we want is that next spark of inspiration.  They seem so chaotic, so arbitrary, so incomprehensible.

For so many decades I had been taught that answers were the key.  As I look around, I see others who have been taught the same.  We see people who dive towards answers like rabid dogs.  I see people holding answers they can not defend and answers to things they have not thought through.  I see people who have no idea how they arrived at an answer who in a state of fear will make up a justification for their answer on the spot.

I have always loved questioning, and always valued curiosity.  I used these tools towards the outside world resulting in my being the most observant, and as a result, the most successful person I knew.  At the same time I held onto an answer; the answer to the question, "Do I know myself?"

In assuming that answer was yes, while also blinding myself to my parts, I inadvertently had grown very distant from my self.  My parts were broken up, floating around my brain avoiding or crashing into each other.  This state spurred some very extreme states including feeling: hollow, empty, manic, confused, lonely, elated, egotistical and worthless.

When I started to read about, and then experience these parts of myself, my answer was shaken and began to collapse.  What would happen if I had no answer?  What would happen if I embraced the honesty of the fact that I barely knew myself at all?

Changing Tune

At this point I had already established a phenomenally supportive life adventure partnership with my best friend Sharon.  I had learned with her that that only good things come from swallowing one's assumptions and heading directly into pain with curiosity and honesty.  I swallowed hard and turned that old strategy of curiosity inward.

I asked questions; I asked lots of questions.  The truth is, I did not find answers.  I did not waver on my strategy  when a question was not answered, I just asked another.  I became curious about my lack of answers and asked deeper questions.  I strode deeper and deeper into the scary woods of my mind with open curiosity, as well as the humility of admitting I had no answers.

Over the course of a year, a very wonderful thing happened.  My new soft stance towards my self, had colored how I saw others.  With my honesty about my self came an honesty about my limited knowledge of others.  I was now much softer spoken, much more patient, much more curious.

When another attacked me, I started to not react, but to question...

When an answer to another's problem seamed obvious, I started to be curious as to why I thought I had an answer to their issue...

I asked and asked, inward and outward.  I became a student of human behavior and human emotion.  As I became more and more curious, and more and more honest about my lack of knowledge, my parts started to notice.  I was still walking through the dark woods, but there were others near by.  As I become curious, they became curious.

Soon, my persistence convinced them to start trying to help me in very small ways.  They helped by offering me metaphors to look at questions in new light.  They started to warn me who I could trust on my journey of curiosity.

Power Unleashed

The people who know me well, have commented on my change.  With my parts supporting me more and more in my quest for empathy, I have become a conversation power house.  I have come to pick up on the smallest details and parlay them into the deepest insights.  I am able to link desperate topics over the course of hours of conversations and string them together into a cohesive truth which illuminates all new questions.

The most fun comes with my wonderful ability to find metaphors and develop them on the spot.  As I am running full speed through a conversation, parallel related ideas will be given to me which allow me to explore new ways of seeing an issue.

I feel like I am playing a game of mental Tetris.  My parts listen to the conversation, and dip down into my subconscious to gram related puzzle pieces   They them present them to me at the top of my mental screen.  One by one I pick the pieces from the small array of insightful choices, and slot them into the conversation as they seem to fit.

It is all so relaxing, and yet exciting.  Hours fly by, and the conversation never lulls.  Each topic is a room with 20 doors which each lead to another room of 20 doors, branching on forever...

But a Power for What?

Now I sit at the precipice of a new era of my life.  I will never settle for another boring conversation again.  With so much to explore, I have little interest in rehashing the same old filler topics of weather, sports, or news sensations.  I have so much to offer and so many possibilities.

My immediate strategy is not to find an answer to "what is next?" but to widen my social reach as much as possible to increase the odds of my finding where I can do the most good in the world.

My current role at Walt Disney Imagineering is wonderful.  It affords me the opportunity to work directly with passionate individuals from such diverse backgrounds and skill sets.  It offers me programs to meet new people on a regular basis, and become a mentor to my peers.  It also pays in a way that allows me to explore areas of the world in comfort.

For now, I believe empathy is the most important thing I have learned in my 30+ years here on earth.  It is what I see least in others whom I meet.  It is the most life changing skill to possess.  And best of all, I now know it is one of the easiest skills to develop.

I went from having almost no empathy to possessing more than any other person I know in 12 months.  I didn't really know what I was doing.  I bet you can do it in much less.

Are you interested?  Hmm, I wonder why?

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