The Empathic Approach
What is an empath?
We’re all empaths; our empathic abilities are our preverbal or nonverbal communication skills. These skills give us the ability to read emotions, body language, nuance, gesture, and intent. Though we’re not taught about our empathic skills, we use them all the time. For instance, when we watch a dance performance or listen to instrumental music, we’re utilizing our empathic skills. Empathy is a totally normal ability, yet empathic skills are hidden from us because we believe that communication primarily consists of words and grammatical structure. It doesn’t.
Many of us have also been taught that emotions are irrational or unimportant. They’re not. They’re absolutely necessary for communication and cognition – and we all depend upon our emotional skills and our ability to read the emotions of others. Sometimes we mistakenly project our emotions onto other people or situations, but when we’re skillful empaths, we can avoid projection and read emotions, gestures, and nuance correctly. When we can, our social intelligence becomes very strong.
What have you discovered empathically about the emotions?
Well, they’re huge stumbling blocks for us, and our understanding of emotions lags far behind our understanding of nearly every other aspect of life. We can chart the universe and split the atom, but we can’t seem to understand or manage our natural emotional reactions to provoking situations. We turn to science or spiritual teachings to increase our knowledge of ourselves and the world around us, yet we ignore the most basic and innate source of knowledge we possess – our emotions. We’re intellectually brilliant, physically resourceful, spiritually imaginative … but emotionally underdeveloped.
This is a shame, because emotions can help us make decisions and attain self knowledge, stronger relationships, and indispensable information about the social world. It is our emotional sensitivity and agility – our empathy – that helps us move forward, understand deeply, and connect with ourselves, other people, our vision, and our purpose. Verbal skills and rationality may be what make us so smart, but it is our emotions and our empathy that make us brilliant, decisive, and compassionate human beings.
Why do emotions cause so much pain and trouble?
In their healthy state, emotions don’t cause the pain or the trouble: We cause pain and trouble when we mismanage our emotions. Each of our emotions is only a messenger. The trouble comes when we misread and misuse the messages we’re given. I’ve found that all emotions – even the dark ones like rage, panic, or hatred – contain brilliant strengths and insights if we manage them honorably. I’ve also found that all emotions – even the supposedly positive ones like joy – can disrupt us and everyone around us if we treat them disrespectfully.
Of course, emotional states that repeat endlessly (or ones you can’t control) may be aspects of an underlying neurochemical, psychological, or endocrine imbalance. In these cases, emotions can cause a lot of trouble, but it’s not the emotions themselves causing the trouble. In a way, they’re the canaries in the coal mine that alert us to the trouble.
What are some of the most damaging ideas we have about the emotions?
Almost all of our ideas about emotions are twisted in some way, because we don’t treat the emotions as a unified whole – as a complete system of information and abilities without which we cannot survive. We cripple ourselves unnecessarily when we call some emotions “positive” and other emotions “negative.” All emotions can be positive if they arise at the appropriate time and we manage them appropriately – just as all emotions can be negative if they’re stuck in a feedback loop, or if we ignore them, hurl them at others, or try to keep ourselves jacked up with them at all times.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve discovered about emotions?
The emotions surprise me all the time, but the biggest surprise for me is that they all exist in every second of every day. I think people believe that they don’t have anger until they get grumpy or riled up. Or they don’t have sadness if they’re not crying, or they don’t have fear if they don’t feel anxious or afraid. But what I’ve found is that all emotions are present – or they should be – at all times.
For instance, healthy anger sets healthy boundaries for you. If you don’t have a good connection with your healthy anger, you won’t have good boundaries. Healthy fear is your intuition. If you and your healthy fear are disconnected, you won’t have good instincts. If you and your healthy jealousy are unacquainted, you’ll have a terrible time identifying loyal mates and friends. Healthy sadness helps you let go when you need to. It brings you the capacity to relax and let go when you need to release things that aren’t working anyway. Each emotion has a vital role in the maintenance of your behavior, your relationships, your social life, and your intelligence. If you don’t know that, you may tend to swat away emotions as if they’re mosquitoes, or chase after them as if they’re rare butterflies. Learning that each emotion is with you in every second; that they belong to you and exist to assist you … wow, it’s life-changing.
What would you tell people who are suffering through difficult emotions right now?
I’d tell them that they’re not alone. Our emotions are very powerful, and it’s very easy to be overcome by them. But I would also ask them to remember that they are in charge – not in a strict way – but in the sense that they have control over how they respond to their emotions.
It’s always useful to breathe in and remind ourselves that this too shall pass. All emotions will pass if we pay attention to them (except, of course, in emotional illnesses like anxiety disorders, rage disorders, or depressive disorders).
A very helpful thing I learned from the emotions is that if they don’t move along, then there’s something wrong. Emotions are supposed to move and change and flow. If they don’t, and you’re continually stuck in an emotion for hours or days on end, it’s important to seek outside help. That help can be a book, a close friend, a counselor, or your doctor. One of the purposes of emotions is to connect us to others, but we almost always forget to reach out when our emotions are troubling. So reach out! There’s excellent help available.