Empathy is a subject that is difficult to discuss in the modern zeitgeist. Many people feel that the internet has finally made it possible to hold others accountable. And the truth is that something like the #MeToo movement shows how much positive change it can bring. Is it really worthwhile practicing empathy for people who have hurt others?
Yet there are still proponents of “radical empathy.” This refers to choosing to empathise with people who you might normally be expected to hate. People who hurt or betrayed you, or did something terrible to someone you love.
Shrugging the idea off as an ideal espoused by people who are privileged never to have been oppressed is easy. But the reality is that radical empathy is an important skill for people suffering with mental illness and substance use disorders.
Here is why you should practise radical empathy.
Taking the world off your shoulders:
The internet has amplified the noise around us every single day. Instead of hearing only news which is relevant to us, we hear about things going on around the world. This is not only the case when watching or reading the news, but occurs every time we use social media. We see someone giving their opinion on a matter which has a major impact on our lives, and feel hurt even though we might never meet the person.
This is one way in which it is easy to espouse the idea of radical empathy. Instead of seeing people online as villains, consider that they believe strongly in what they are saying. They are driven by emotion, and we all know how emotion can warp our thinking.
By empathising with the online world, you get to relax. Suddenly, the anxiety caused by knowing that so many people are “out to get you” no longer seems as urgent. When you see people as misguided rather than malicious, you stop fearing them.
But radical empathy goes even further.
Empathy is a way of not judging others for the mistakes they have made. Judgment always exacerbates mental health issues. The reality is that when you judge others, you are also judging yourself. This does not mean you have done the same thing as the person you judge. However, you are implicitly affirming that you yourself are not allowed to be like them. You are putting pressure on yourself to never mess up.
Radical empathy reminds us that everyone makes mistakes. Everyone does things which betray the people they love or harm diverse groups of people. When you drop your judgment and empathise with others, you are forgiving yourself for all the wrongs you believe you have committed and all the future mistakes you cannot help but make.
Instead of judging yourself, you will accept your humanity, seeing mistakes as inevitable learning experiences. By empathising with others, you are empathising with yourself, and that allows you to be authentically you.