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Don't Harden Your Heart

In the face of so much tragedy and war, it can be different to hang on to feelings of empathy.

But the danger is that our emotions may get polarized; we may feel great grief and hopelessness about mankind, because we hear so much of the bad news. We risk becoming inured to tragedy, veering from empathy to callousness. And that can contaminate every domain of our experience, until we feel hopeless about everything.

The problem arises because it is so painful to feel excess pity. What we want is to be sensitive without falling into the dichotomy and clinging to one of those two poles. We can't simply shut off the news, although some do that. We need to take in the information. We need to be able to handle the news. So we aspire to more than shutting off.

We're after the elegant solution, emotional modulation. The inelegant solution is to feel morose, hurt, defeated and over-pitying. The other extreme of inelegant solution is to become callous and indifferent to the suffering of others. The danger of the inelegant solution is that it overgeneralizes: You start feeling more callous about friends, loved ones, everything.

The goal is to develop a sense of empathy and maintain it. I like to think of empathy as a system of vicarious learning that has evolved to protect us. Our friends, family members, kin are suffering, and we identify with them.

For emotional health, the ideal is to uproot overpity and callousness and to tune into sensitivity, or empathy. Empathy is the ability to experience a situation vicariously without overgeneralizing but also without dismissing it as irrelevant to your life. It is difficult to extricate the abundance of data we get from the media from the data we get from family members, and others relevant to us, without shutting the inflow down.

This is critically important for those who are subject to depression, because they especially need to learn how to modulate their emotions. Modulation requires awareness of one's own emotional experience. It requires expansion of our emotional lexicon, distinguishing sensitivity from oversensitivity.

Empathy is an emotion that is essential for social life. Lack of empathy alienates others. When you're unempathetic, it's hard to understand what someone else is feeling and impossible to display kindness. Understanding and kindness are two key ingredients in social relations. Empathy not only underlies social relations; it is critical to self-regulation.

It is important to resist feeling helpless and hopeless on the one hand, and callous and indifferent on the other, thinking the world is a terrible place. Neither is good for understanding others or ourselves. Empathy clears the way for taking in information, allowing you to create more options for yourself.

How to Develop Empathy

First, identify in yourself the tendency to veer from one extreme to the other, from hopelessness and helplessness to being indifferent. This is the tendency to overgeneralize.

Find Your Inner Dialogue

Struggle to figure out what you are telling yourself. We all have inner dialogues with ourselves, and these provide us with the opportunity to insert some control over our mental life. These allow us needed awareness of our mental processes.

For example, one line of self-talk may be, "I can't do anything about it; so I don't care." Or, conversely, "This is too unfathomably horrible, I can't stand living in such a world."

Find Your Own Philosphy

By using what you are telling yourself, figure out the underlying philosophies you have about the world. These philosophies may be implicit, in that you may not realize you have a belief that the world is a Horrible Place. Nevertheless, such beliefs lead directly to demoralization and depression. We all have implicit philosophies, and they drive how we handle ourselves emotionally.

A more realistic philosophy and self-conversation might be, "This news is quite sad. I don't know that I can affect the outcome. But I certainly feel saddened without lapsing into hopelessness or passivity."

Cultivate Empathy

Cultivating empathy requires some work. It's not just a willful immediate choice; it's a long-range choice, like learning a foreign language or learning to drive a stick shift. You cultivate empathy by recognizing that when another person is hurt, so are you. You learn to identify in yourself that same feeling.

Putting in the effort to cultivate empathy runs counter to some strains of our culture. We live in a culture of entitlement, and are often exhorted to feel we have self-worth without making ourselves worthy. We believe we are entitled to feel good about ourselves all the time. Educating ourselves is a process that never ends. So we need to accept the habit of mind of working on ourselves.

Celebrate Stupidity

In cultivating healthy habits of mind, stupidity is a good thing. Identifying one's own stupidity is not a cause for concern but a cause for celebration. The trick is to apply the label not to yourself but to thoughts or behaviors. Noticing your own stupidity is where learning begins.