When we feel stuck, at the heart of it, we feel lonely. We’re not understood. We’re not connected. Our worries sap the energy and imagination necessary to see our way out.
We need empathy. Stat!
We need someone to acknowledge us and show that they understand how we feel. To give us a sense of unfettered belonging that will unclog our stuck thoughts and feelings.
At the same time, we’re obliged to engage in empathy ourselves.
We need to truly understand the people involved in our stuck moment: This will broaden our perspective and open up possibilities. Otherwise, it’s too easy to pigeonhole situations, which only narrows our vision.
What empathy does for us
Empathy, in a nutshell, is the ability to hear and feel what someone is saying, verbally and otherwise, without casting judgment. It is the act of letting others know that you understand them and their situation. You feel what they feel.
The results can be magnificent.
When we’re stuck and we receive empathy, it:
• Relieves alienation. We’re freer to relax and open up because we feel accepted.
• Reduces the negative thoughts we have about ourselves by curtailing anxiety and shame.
• Encourages cooperation and resilience through a sense of connectedness.
When we’re stuck and we exercise empathy for others, it:
• Helps us be more genuine with each other so we can get to the heart of the matter.
• Gives us real understanding of another person and situation, including hopes, fears, and hesitations.
• Builds trust and the possibility of cooperation.
All of these amazing benefits create a sense of wellbeing (duh).
With returns like that, why aren’t we oozing empathy all the time? Because, says Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, we’re in too much of a hurry, and we’re too focused on what we’re doing instead of what’s going on around us.
So all we have to do is put the smartphone down, take our head out of the clouds, and look around? Well, it’s a great start.
Empathy lesson 1: Slow down and put yourself in a neutral state of mind.
The brain is pre-set for empathy. There’s a section called the supramarginal gyrus where the capacity for empathy and compassion resides. The scientists who discovered this in 2013 also learned that the brain does not activate empathy if 1. we’re forced to make quick decisions and 2. our current emotional state is the opposite of the other person’s (I’m having a good day; nothing is going right for you).
Empathy lesson 2: Consciously ask yourself, “How might this person think and feel about this?”
Researchers have also learned that people with low empathy tendencies (such as narcissists) can increase their ability to step outside of themselves when directed to look at a situation from another’s point of view.
Empathy lesson 3: Exercise your mind in ways that help empathy occur more naturally.
Science has known for more than 100 years that the brain is “plastic,” meaning it can reorganize itself and make new connections. Now, several recent studies have found that meditation can grow fibers that connect separate areas of the brain. This interconnectedness builds “the gateway of empathy and compassion through mindful meditation,” says Dr. Dan Seigal, executive director of the Mindsight Institute. The loving-kindness meditation, in particular, helped direct the brain’s attention to a more compassionate mindset.
How to build an empathy habit
Meditation can pave a wider gateway to our empathy, but like guest-speaking at an event, we need to know what to do once we get there. So let’s break empathy down into five areas that are practicable. After awhile, those pieces should naturally put themselves back together again.
1. Understand yourself. Before we can extend empathy to someone else, it helps to be in touch with our own experiences and emotions, and what they’ve taught us. A shining example of this is Zak Ebrahim, who outed himself at TED 2014 as the peace-loving son of a terrorist. Throughout his childhood, he was bullied for his appearance. This, he says, “created a sense of empathy in me toward the suffering of others.” (You can watch his talk here.)
2. Listen fully. When you follow these rules, you’ll hear more:
• Let the other person do most of the talking.
• Look at the speaker.
• Don’t interrupt but do make encouraging responses and nods.
• Ask questions that allow the speaker to expand on the topic.
3. Recognize the unspoken. Humans speak volumes with their eyes and facial expressions (ever notice someone whose mouth is smiling but her eyes aren’t?). Test your eye IQ with this simple, but not so easy, eye-reading test. Also look for microexpressions that occur in less than a second and reveal how someone is feeling at that moment. This guide will help you read them.
4. Reserve judgment. Put aside your point of view so you can consciously hear and see the situation from someone else’s. You don’t have to agree with the other person, but you do need to accept what is, rather than focus on what you think it should be. If you find yourself lapsing into judgment mode, switch to curiosity and try to get a better understanding of the situation.
5. Acknowledge. The goal is to let the speaker know that you’ve heard and understood what he’s saying. This usually includes acknowledging feelings (“that sounds hard,” “you seem overwhelmed”) as well as beliefs. This encourages the other person to continue to open up. NB: Acknowledging never involves giving advice, changing the topic, or disapproving.
You can practice these empathy interactions with a friend by sharing experiences and thoughts with other each that you might not ordinarily reveal.
Ask your partner some of the questions below or any from this list designed by social psychology researcher Arthur Aron to foster closeness by building empathy. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and, in turn, listen without judgment:
• What do you feel most grateful for in your life?
• If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
• Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
• What is an embarrassing moment in your life?
• What is a problem you’re dealing with right now that you wish you had help with?
The more you practice empathy, the stronger those muscles become until you can count on them to help you — and others — in any stuck moment.
Next week: How to fix your worst money mistakes
Last week: The perils of perfection — and what to do about it
Stuck moment: I’ve painted myself into a corner again! I missed the deadline, kept asking for extensions — which means that there’s zero wiggle room for mistakes. The pressure’s really on now but, if I can’t hit it out of the park, why bother?
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For the perfectionists of the world, there’s an urge to wear the trait as a badge of honor. We accept no errors, brook no excuses, turn up our noses at anything less than first place — and surely, we believe, this makes us the ideal kind of person to get things done.
And yet, our perfectionist ways all too often become the sword we fall on rather than the flag we proudly hoist. Our unwavering standards of flawlessness (for others and ourselves) can come at a steep cost, taking a toll on our relationships, peace of mind, and our ability to finish what we’ve started — or, in some cases, to start at all. If we leave perfectionism unchecked, we fall into a vicious cycle of self-sabotage, setting ourselves up to fail with too-high expectations, and then beating ourselves up when we don’t meet them.
Are we talking about you? Here are 13 unhelpful tendencies that result from a perfectionist mindset. If you relate to six or more, definitely keep reading.
Perfectionist tendencies that can undermine personal progress:
• procrastinating until the ideal time or set of circumstances,
• only doing things that you know you can do well,
• trapping yourself with all-or-nothing thinking,
• pushing yourself too hard,
• fixating on mistakes instead of solutions,
• feeling that you’ve failed if you ask others for help,
• beating yourself up when you fall short of too-high expectations.
Perfectionist tendencies that can undermine your relationships:
• continually re-doing things at the expense of budget and deadline,
• pushing others too hard,
• playing mind games (i.e. trash-talking) to exert control,
• judging those who don’t meet your standards,
• secretly taking comfort when others “fail,”
• not rewarding or praising others for a job well done.
If perfectionism is your Achilles heel, whether you’ve ever thought about it that way or not, you’re not alone. We talked to four different perfectionists (in various stages of reform), who share important lessons they’ve learned in pursuit of letting go, even a little bit.
Learn from their experiences, and download our printable tip card Stop the perfectionism! 4 reformed perfectionists share their advice.
Dan Barber, 48, Orillia, ON
Perfectionism level: Almost nonexistent
Dan knows that others can find his exacting standards impossible to meet. “Sometimes perfectionism leads to black-and-white thinking,” he says. “It’s easy for me to think that my way is the right way — what would be right about being disorganized? But, when I place those expectations on my two teenagers, I can sabotage the relationship by placing cleanliness and organization above my relationship with them.”
Dan’s #1 lesson: Balancing the “dark side of perfectionism” requires remembering that your needs and wants aren’t necessarily the center of the world. Dan says, “When you can focus on loving your family and your friends, perfectionism can take a back seat to that.”
What you can do: Before you tag someone who doesn’t meet your expectations with the label of “inferior” or “careless,” pause for a moment to appreciate what they do contribute. Gratitude will warm you, and make you less judgmental.
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Kristin Toth Smith, 39, Seattle, WA
Profession: CEO, Code Fellows
Perfectionism level: Low
Kristin is a veteran of the messy, unpredictable start-up world, but her perfectionism used to keep her on the sidelines of risk. She didn’t want to try anything she couldn’t already do super well because looking silly wasn’t an option. But she realized, “If everything I’m doing is in my comfort zone, it’s not giving me enough satisfaction. And I’ll get impatient with others who can’t do it well, because I don’t have enough to focus on for myself.”
Kristin’s #1 lesson: After joining online deals site zulily, Kristin got a crash-course in perfection as a work in progress. When her boss asked if she could complete a project in eight weeks that ought to take eight months, she forced herself to say, “Let’s find out!” By doing this, she says, “I gave myself permission to be wrong, as long as it was getting better every day. You just have to take the first step, and see perfectionism as something to achieve down the road. And then say yes to bigger and bigger challenges.”
What you can do: Lose your fear of looking foolish with your own invigorating anthem. Pick your favorite dance tune — if it has a silly dance routine associated with it, all the better. Some ideas: Taylor Swift’s Shake it Off, D.A.N.C.E. by Justice, or the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive. Turn it up in your bedroom and bust out your moves. Don’t shy away from the funky chicken or your own signature step or shimmy. Keep going until you feel truly freed of your inhibitions. Then, whenever the need to appear flawless has got you boxed in, tune into your anthem (even just in your head) to release yourself.
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Christa Harrison, 20, San Antonio, TX
Profession: Sophomore, Texas A&M University
Perfectionism level: Intermittent
Christa says that her unrealistic expectations for herself are largely based on media images and narratives of the perfect life. “Deep down, I’m looking for that perfect image for myself, my house, and my life,” she says. “It drives a lot of what I do.”
Christa’s #1 lesson: What’s most helped her shed the straitjacket of perfection is realizing that it’s mainly pride and insecurity that make her care about others’ opinions. “It’s my ego that caters to the opinions of everyone I care about, and it’s my ego that thrives on praise received for not making any mistakes,” she says. “This awareness can be liberating.”
What you can do: Let go of other people’s unhelpful ideas of what’s right. For each unrealistic expectation you place on yourself, ask:
• Whose standard is this? Society’s? My parents’?
• Does it fit with what I want, or what I believe?
• Who am I afraid of disappointing if I don’t go for it — myself or someone else?
• If I don’t meet this expectation, will I still be on track with my goals and dreams?
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Colin Reid, 31, Brooklyn, NY
Profession: Graduate student in English
Perfectionism level: Elevated
For Colin, perfectionism isn’t just about controlling the outcome, but also perfecting the process. When he feels that he’s going easy on himself, or failing to execute things in exactly the right way, he beats himself up — especially when he’s writing. “When it comes to writing a sentence, I want every sentence to be very chiseled,” he says. “I’m impatient seeing my own imperfections. I brood over them and make a torture chamber for myself.”
Colin’s #1 lesson: To push past his fear of failure, it helps Colin to remember that his heroes — whether sports figures or writers — achieved great heights while making plenty of mistakes along the way. “The ones that were perfect, we never heard of because they never got anything done,” he says. “They never wrote the poem, they never played the game.”
What you can do: Check your fear of making mistakes by learning to enjoy the process for its own sake. To get into the right mindset, choose an activity for which you usually have a habit and wing it instead. Skip your usual running trail and take a path less traveled. Cook dinner by taste and touch. Notice what’s new and different about this approach, and the fresh ideas that it stimulates.
DOWNLOAD THIS PRINTABLE TIP CARD: Stop the perfectionism! 4 reformed perfectionists share their advice
A lost relationship is a painful regret because it implies that there’s nothing to be done. And on occasion, there isn’t. Death, for example, can get in the way. All other reasons, however, are moot. I’ve waited too long. He won’t forgive me. I can’t forgive her. We’ve both moved on. These are the thoughts that the negative voice in our head uses to fan the fear of rejection.
Put a muzzle on it, because there’s probably one or two people who you wish were back in your life, if even tangentially. Think of the joy the connection will bring — and then reach out. Likely, both of you will be delightfully surprised.
We can justify just about anything, can’t we? It’s a stand-in for lack of patience or a tired imagination or a distracted agenda. It’s good enough, right? Maybe. Sometimes.
Whenever you’re ready to sign off but you have even the slightest doubt — you know, that visceral nudge that can be easily ignored — pay attention. If you can wait an hour or a day until you’re more refreshed, revisit it later. You’ll know what needs fixing, and you’ll have the energy to do it.
If time is not on your side, find your reserve forces by asking yourself if finishing now will bother you later. Will someone else point it out what you instinctively knew could have been better? Will you be relieved that you summoned the extra effort?
Dreaming of a new career can (temporarily) lessen the bite of a bad job, but it may not motivate us beyond our musings. To build momentum, do something — anything — that gets you excited, increases your knowledge, or expands your connections. Here are 7 ideas ranging from tiny to whoa-look-what-I’m-doing!
1. Make a vision board
2. Go on an informational interview
3. Start a side business on eBay or Etsy
4. Write a guest article or blog post
5. Resist the urge to complain
6. Give tennis lessons to kids
7. Write your autobiography: it might reveal things you forgot about yourself
Thanks to Karen Amster-Young and Pam Godwin for this list. You can find hundreds more ideas in their book The 52 Weeks: Two Women and Their Quest to Get Unstuck, with Stories and Ideas to Jumpstart Your Year of Discovery