Bootstrapping Empathy: From Robot to Reasonable Human Being
I’m no saint, but I think it’s fair to say that I have reached the level of reasonable human being. This is progress. Not too long ago, I had a difficult time feeling the emotions of others. Except in narrow circumstances, empathy eluded me. I thought something was wrong with me (and perhaps something was). Nevertheless, I have since managed to activate the empathetic realm of my consciousness, and in this article I’ll tell you how.
I don’t know when it happened, but at some point my brain decided that it was easier to close itself off from difficult emotions then to try to deal with uncomfortable realities. Maybe it was genetic. Maybe it was a defense mechanism to deal with bullying when I was growing up. Who knows. Whatever the cause, by the time I arrived at UCLA for my undergraduate education, I had decided to no longer give a fuck. It seemed much easier. Much safer. If you don’t care, you can’t get hurt.
This worked pretty well, actually. For the most part, my life satisfaction hovered around a 7 or 8 out of 10. I was pretty much never sad. I didn’t have many setbacks, and the problems of others didn’t affect me. Why should they?
I am going to put aside the obvious problem that not caring about others is wrong in itself. I think that’s likely true, but that’s not the focus of this article. Here, I’m going to focus on selfish reasons. Not feeling empathy for others puts a ceiling your own life satisfaction. Limiting your successes and failures to your own life hamstrings the depth of your existence. Maybe you can live your life at a constant 7 out of 10, never dipping below a 6, but who wants a life that’s consistently a C minus?
Shutting yourself off from negative emotions results in a narrowed range of experiences. If you don’t let yourself be vulnerable with a significant other, you won’t get hurt if they break up with you. If you don’t get close with family members, it won’t sting as much when they die. If you don’t learn about atrocities which take place across the world, then they won’t impact your day-to-day life. However, in putting up emotional armor, you lose the ability to love. Caring only about yourself is not human — we are social creatures that find meaning in interdependence. If you divert your focus to only yourself (as I did for many years), you won’t find true fulfillment.
In order to get to a 10/10, you need to take risks. Putting yourself out there means you might get hurt. In fact, you probably will. But that’s part of life. The ups and the downs are central to the human condition. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable creates trust and connection with others. Would you love a robot? Probably not. So don’t be a robot yourself — take the risk being vulnerable, empathetic, and compassionate. Be bold enough to care.
How can I cause myself to feel? That was the question. It seemed a difficult endeavor. Realizing I was no expert on the matter, I went to therapy starting in summer of 2018.
Therapy was great, and I highly recommend it to anyone. Fuck the stigma.
I found two main methods to be particularly effective: (1) changing the internal labels I applied to myself and (2) acting how a compassionate person would act. Together, these methods have caused me to become a reasonable human being.
Change the internal narrative.
So much of mental health involves the story we tell ourselves about who we are. I am this. I am that. Many times, we focus on the negative. Moreover, words of others can burrow their way into our consciousness for years. There were occasions in which I was told I lacked empathy. A couple individuals even ventured to assign various disorders to my personality. Granted, such amateur psychologists were in places of emotional pain themselves, and perhaps I should have taken their diagnoses with a grain of salt. But the soul isn’t rational, it’s emotional. The words stung. The effects lasted.
So my internal monologue decided I was a person who lacked empathy. It was a label assigned to my personality. It was unfortunate, but it was how it was. There was nothing I could do about it. People can’t change.
Except people can change, and it all starts with who you say you are. One day, I decided I was compassionate. I decided I was emotionally invested in the lives of others. I decided I was empathetic. This started out to be very weird, as it contradicted what I had been telling myself for years. However, eventually I started to believe myself. I would meditate on compassion and recite affirmations which declared that I cared about others. I wasn’t cold. I was caring. While I was beginning to transform my inner monologue, I pursued the second strategy: I acted like I was empathetic.
Act your way into thinking.
Have you ever heard of the phrase fake it ‘till you make it? Usually this pops up in the realm of gaining confidence. If you are afraid of public speaking, get up there and start talking until you conquer your fear. Speak until you become a speaker. I decided to apply this same technique to my quest for empathy.
It was simple in theory: act the way an empathetic person would act. Every time a decision came up, I would try to choose the route of compassion. Obviously, this is much easier said than done. The selfish part of my brain would often protest, and many times I failed. I still fail. But it’s getting better.
Human beings are controlled by their habits. If you can reprogram your default reaction to a given stimulus, you can change your life. Every time you choose a certain course of action, you are more likely to replicate that decision in the future. If you go to the gym one morning, you are a little more likely to go the next day. Go every day for a month, and you have likely created a lasting habit. The same works with compassion. If you respond to a difficult social situation with empathy, you are more likely to respond with empathy next time. Practice makes permanent. Once you get in the habit of being compassionate, it will start to be automatic.
The brain dislikes cognitive dissonance. Your mind doesn’t know what to do with itself when you act one way and think another way. It’s confusing. In order to fix this dilemma, one of two things can happen: (1) you can change the way you act or (2) you can change the way you think. If you stick to going through the motions of being compassionate when responding to various social situations, eventually your brain will start changing the internal narrative. It feels strange to act compassionately while simultaneously thinking selfish thoughts. As a result, your personality starts to decide it’s empathetic, not emotionless. Eventually, a virtuous cycle emerges where positive behavior reinforces positive self-talk, which produces more positive behavior. You start to change.
After deciding to care about the emotions of others, I can unequivocally say that my quality of life has increased. I am happier, more fulfilled, and more closely connected to my fellow human beings. It turns out that being generous makes everyone involved feel better (including myself). The 7 has been replaced with a 10. My experiences are more diverse. My relationships are stronger. I am far from perfect, but I’m making progress.
The takeaways are twofold. First, if you have found yourself cloistered off in your own emotional world, I would suggest that you get out there and connect with other people. It may seem scary to put yourself out there emotionally, but it will benefit you in the long run. The risk will pay off. Second, I wholeheartedly believe — I know — that people can change. If you want to change something about yourself follow the two steps I outlined above. Change your internal narrative and act your way into thinking. It will take time, but eventually you can become who you’re meant to be.