Learning Empathy As A Young Adult


I grew up in a household not practising empathy or compassion. So for years in a row I eventually did not know how to react when people told me someone died, when they were going through unfortunate events, or when they were in pain and needed a shoulder to cry on.

I briefly recall the day my grandmother died. I was ten, it was one or two weeks before Christmas. My mother came in the room where I slept that night, her bedroom, pulled the curtains and announced: Your grandma passed. My first reaction was to go bold and careless about it. My gesture – folding my arms under my head and taking a sort of relaxed breath – I find now from the same array of gestures you do when your body doesn’t know how to react to extreme shock. For example when you burst into laughter when you heard someone’s parent or friend died.

But later that day I saw my grandma on her bed. Small, detached from all worldly things, consumed by her disease and so, so fragile. Her hands were cold. I locked myself in my parents’ bedroom and cried. I cried for such a long time that finally my aunt came in and hugged me.

In my teenage years, I realized I was somehow missing the gene of empathy.
So I understood I have to cultivate one, for the sake of social adequacy, at least. I started telling people things like I’m sorry, or I sincerely regret, when I heard they were going through pain, trying to make a sad face myself. But naturally, I still couldn’t connect to their state. So I had to move further to learn this mechanism that was so unfamiliar for me and that eventually caused so much anguish inside with age.

It is believed we cannot empathize with others unless we’ve been through situations of the same magnitude or at least, highly similar. When I got into therapy things haven’t progressed much, but with years I understood I changed essentially. Compassion and empathy found ways in my body and brain, and most importantly, in my heart. They have become norm. Dealing with great amounts of pain has made me reconsider my upbringing and I eventually understood that the type of therapy we aim for has pro’s and con’s and that not all types are suited for me.

Going for CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) for seven years turned sour for me in the end. Right now I am not sure which type is better or actually helpful. The last therapist I went to insisted that while the perfectionism I inherited from my mother is blocking results due to sky high expectations, therapy is a demanding and voluntary act of will. So it’s not easy, not as easy as it seems. Looking back now, I realize my journey of 20 years to appropriate empathy and practise compassion has been a voluntary effort to make myself “normal” or at least in accordance to the world we live in. And I succeeded.

To everyone out there intolerant to same sex marriage, mental health challenges, trauma or peculiar life choices – I want to tell a small fable. After many years in CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), which I mostly loathed – not because of its predicaments but because of practitioners’ poor approach to it in my country – I understood something very important. Adhering to certain behaviours and values throughout a lifetime, and mostly – making a daily effort to ingrain them into our systems things like empathy, acceptance, diversity, saying thank you, i am sorry, i love you, forgive me etc (which perhaps we lacked in our upbringing) is vital for making us better at life and inside the climates we live in.

Even it it feels unnatural at first, it’s one of the steps we can make to stop feeling resentful, socially inapt or inadequate. Tolerance is one of those things we need to ingrain, practice and harvest most, and in that sense there is grace and courage in taking the risk and the leap to challenge our own systems, behaviours and inner voices, and understand what we really need.

But I still keep wondering, as I age and the party girl in me gets less and less social and more and more prone to loneliness – how to display the same amount of empathy and compassion to the one person I’ve neglected all my life: myself.

There is a safe place in the world, contained in these four words: “I feel for you”.
To those of you in any kind of pain reading this, know that this place exists, even when the road seems endless or maps seem tricky. To those of you dealing with a loved one who is in pain, anguish or just hopelessly exhausted, be so kind to feel for those who suffer.

We can only make the safe place bigger with EMPATHY.