How to Develop Empathy for Someone You Don’t Like
Empathy comes easier to some people than others. Even if you find it challenging, the good news is that it can be learned. When you can truly feel someone else’s emotions (whether it be of joy, sadness or frustration), you’re being empathic. Although some might feel bad for someone who is upset, this is not necessarily empathy. That is sympathy. Being able to tap into another person’s emotions -- understanding and being aware of them – is true empathy. Although this is a good quality to have, it’s possible to be overly empathetic – feeling too many feelings that aren’t your own. This can become consuming for some. Finding that right amount of empathy is important in any kind of relationship (whether it be romantic, a friendship or most important, the relationship with yourself).
But what happens when you tap into the feelings of someone you don’t care for? Should you even care about their feelings? Is it possible to feel empathy for someone you don’t like? It is possible, but takes more work. Most importantly, it will benefit you in the long run. Studies have shown the health benefits of empathy to include prosocial behavior and social closeness. Really, it can’t hurt to try putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.
Showing compassion for yourself and others is something we all need to practice more often. A great mindfulness exercise is Loving-Kindness Meditation (or metta). This is a great way to be present while gaining a greater sense of compassion. Not only is it a way to develop compassion, but it’s a way to explore unconditional love. It’s a mental exercise where you visualize the love for yourself, those you love, people you don’t like so much, people you don’t really know and the world as a whole. So what’s the point of trying to have all this love for all these people (even those you don’t really care about)? It’s not just for them, it’s for you. Being able to love yourself unconditionally makes you able to extend that love to others around you. With enough practice, you’ll be able to feel true compassion for others (even those who have hurt you).
While it may seem easier to show compassion for yourself and ones you love, doing so for those you may not mesh with is a little more difficult. Whether it’s clashing personalities or someone whose beliefs you disagree with, we’re not going to love everyone we encounter in life. And that’s okay. But being able to show compassion for someone who we don’t like shows incredible strength.
Myriam Mongrain, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, Canada conducted a study titled “Acts of kindness reduce depression in individuals low on agreeableness.” As a result of this study, she came up with several steps you can take to help you empathize with those you may not agree with.
Start with open communication
If you disagree with someone’s values, try to get to the fundamental emotion dictating their beliefs. This requires open communication so that you both can have an equal amount of respect for each other’s opinion. Understanding an emotion will make this person more relatable, as you can likely relate to a feeling more easily than their beliefs.
Think Globally, not individually
Try thinking about this person in their full cultural context. This requires some curiosity, which is a necessary part of empathy. Learn about their history, their family, etc. These things are a critical part of what makes us who we are. So if we have a better understanding of someone, it makes it easier to see where they are coming from. Not everyone grew up the same. Even if you’re from the same neighborhood, how you were raised affects you for a lifetime. Once you can grasp that, you’ll be able to see things from a different point of view. And that’s what empathy is all about.
Respond with love
This is especially important to remember around the holidays, when we’re surrounded by family who may have different views (especially when it comes to politics). Even if you disagree to the core with a family member’s political views, they’re still your family and you might still love them. Try to tap into that love emotion.
Beliefs don’t define you
It’s easier to respond with love, knowing no one is their beliefs. If you let your beliefs define you then it will make it much harder to empathize with someone you disagree with. This is because the disagreement will feel like a personal attack. It will hurt more when you feel your beliefs are your identity. Try to separate the two, for yourself and for others.
We’re more alike than we are different
At the end of the day, we are all human and almost everyone wants the same thing – to be happy and successful. Happiness and success look different to different people, but the end game is the same. When you can come back to that and understand it on a deeper level, you’ll be able to empathize with just about anyone. Try to notice your similarities with others.
If you’re finding it difficult to empathize (whether it’s with someone you like or don’t like), consider speaking with a professional. Schedule an appointment with one of our therapists today.
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