The power of empathy

We all have the power to view our lives in a more positive light. And this, explains Flavia Mazelin Salvi, means making the best of our relationships


The power of empathy

Sometimes it’s easy to believe that the world is going from bad to worse — war is everywhere and it’s too late to save the planet, and anyone who dares to deny this is seen as a pathetic idealist living in denial. This is because, in our culture, realism and pessimism are synonymous.

There is a general belief that intelligent people should be cynical and gloomy. To reverse this trend towards negative thinking, psychotherapist Alain Gamichon suggests we should be watchful for negative habits of mind, question our thoughts (‘Where does this idea come from? Is it helping me or demotivating me?’) and, once we’re aware of how much these thoughts bring us down, try to silence them.

Another option is to plan every day around a positive formula (‘I will approach every situation with a calm mindset’, or ‘I will allow myself small indulgences’).

According to Gamichon, approaching life in a consciously positive way isn’t the same as cocooning ourselves in an idealistic bubble, but it does mean deciding not to let ourselves be contaminated by negativity. This, in turn, will immeasurably improve our relationships.

Our identity, our sense of who we are, is constructed in the context of our relationships with other people, says psychologist Dominique Picard. The more honest and balanced our relationships, the better we function.

Picard recommends the following:

  • Making sure we give as much as we receive — this can mean time, compliments, attention or gifts. This level of equality protects us from the negative effects of dependence and domination.
  • Accepting that we are all separate people. Many of life’s conflicts stem from our need to shape one another according to our own values, so that we feel in control. Accepting difference or separateness allows us to feel positive about what we can’t change.
  • Communicating what we feel, so that we don’t send ambivalent or contradictory messages. This includes only offering to help when we really want to — without thinking ‘You owe me’ once it’s done.

‘I tell the other person what I want them to do and not what I don’t want them to do,’ says Marshall B Rosenberg, author of Practical Spirituality. This is a clear way of affirming what we want, and it encourages the other person to behave in the same way, which puts us on an equal footing.

Rosenberg believes that if we clearly express our feelings and needs, we will be capable of total empathy with others, understanding exactly what the other person is feeling at that particular moment. ‘Ask yourself, what are they feeling right now?’ he suggests. ‘What would they like to say but don’t dare? What have I done, said or implied that might have upset them? What could I do to reassure them?’

This frame of mind forces us to move the focus away from ourselves, our judgements, our competitive and negative thinking, and to enter into the other person’s feelings and thought processes. Idealistic? Perhaps, but this level of empathy would help us escape from relationships based on negativity, fear and power. At least some of the time.