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Empathy: Carl Rogers’ Legacy on Humanity and What He Taught Us About Being Real

In the last entry, I wrote about radical honesty, which is a form of communicating our feelings and thoughts with others, bypassing filters. Today, I’d like to discuss a continuance of talking about a key human “relating skill” called Empathy. Empathy can be defined as: the ability to put ourselves in another person’s perspective and relating with them through genuine communication. I’m going to also write about what I believe may be responsible for a general diminished societal capacity in that skill of relating through empathy.

We are living in a time that promotes endless use of cell phones, social media and cyber space as the dominating methods of how we interact with one another. From my experience, as we use these types of communication, although having some positive qualities, I get a sense that these modes are promoting inauthentic and incomplete forms of relating. Text messaging lends itself to keeping things surface level and brief. It is as if we just want to get to the point and cut things short. We really can’t blame ourselves because of all of the garbage (information/misinformation) that we have to sift through and for the purpose of time consumption, getting to the point can actually be a luxury.

However, any time we cut corners we usually pay a price and things of value don’t normally lend themselves to shortcuts. I have had interesting reactions from people who get surprised when I pick up the phone and call to have an actual conversation. I understand that these life changing technologies are here to stay and yet I believe that we can work on being mindful as to how they affect us. As I use them I am aware of how I am conditioning (training) myself in keeping things brief. I too struggle at times to be aware when I’m not feeling connected, and in accepting those feelings of disconnect as they come up. We have heard the anecdotal saying that: “We have more access to each other than ever, but are living in much more disconnected ways.” I increasingly agree with this.

In my studies, I continue the quest of learning about the ways we relate to one another as human beings and our capacity to change. This relating is at times a mix between art and science. I remember when I was in a class titled: Human Relations. In it, I learned about the structure of communication/interaction between people. I had to break down parts of communication and that deconstruction of a conversation lead to some interesting insights for me. As a result, a conversation can be broken down to: the words spoken (explicit and implicit), body language, tone, pitch and delivery of speech, etc. These elements of connecting with one other are being lost through the texted word. How the hell can you “feel” what I’m saying through a text message? Oh wait, that’s right, that’s what emoji are for. Well, it doesn’t work that way! Meaning gets lost in context. Our brains operate and thrive through natural connection and communication, period. We are subscribing more and more to these synthetic forms of relating that are, dare I say...making us sick.

The irony is that when in the presence of another person, most of our communication occurs through non-verbally expressed interaction (gestures/body language), the key is being present in front of another and being aware of said gestures! I am also in the struggle of not being present at times I admit that. Even when in the physical presence of another, I know the pull of my phone has gotten more of my attention causing me to miss out on the richness of the potential for a fully present interaction. I understand the power of instant validation through the likes and thumbs up from social media that are rewards which shape behavior. This interaction on these platforms then gets promoted and interpreted by the brain’s circuitry as something of value, but is it?

Could this increasing disconnect between people perhaps be related to the fact that: teen suicide, anxiety, depression and other mental health problems are at an all-time high? This isn’t conjecture its fact! Here is a nasty little nugget: The National Institute of Mental Health (NIH) and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the number of teens who develop the symptoms and diagnostic criteria for depression by the time they are 18 is 11%. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 15 and 24. What the hell is going on? Is there some sort of cultural lag here?

I get questions geared at an attempt to understand what it is that can drive people to certain behaviors. Usually, conversations relate to stories that make the headlines on the news. I can’t offer a blanket statement, but I do have a hypothesis as I’ve already hinted at that can perhaps help explain what I believe is a growing culprit. The relation can be seen embedded in our everyday communication methods and interactions with one another. The more we train to relate to one another in superficial ways, the easier it is to be disconnected from each other, which can lead to shitty behavior (my own included).

This all leads me in wanting to share a little info about a man named Carl Rogers. If you don’t know who he was I can sum up by saying that he continues to be regarded as one of the most influential men in Psychotherapy, Psychology, Teaching and other fields regarding human relating. I recently started re-reading his book titled: On Becoming a Person, after years of having read it in graduate school and I can say that it has been a breath of fresh air. Rogers lays out our common struggles as humans and offers a real take on the difficulties of relating and connecting with others in authentic ways, that in my opinion is all too relevant to our common issues. At the heart of it, relating with and to others in genuine ways is what is necessary for us to be healthy human beings.

We are hardwired to connect. Throughout time we have seen that the worst punishments have been to cut off individuals from the tribe/herd/society, which we still do. Modern day segregation/jailing and solitary confinement are the current methods mimicking excommunication and cutoff. We have an inherent knowledge/wisdom that pushes us to that connectivity with others and any threat or loss to that is dangerous to our survival. The ready example that comes to mind begins early in life where a baby who does not make a connection with a warm (m)other dies, this is called failure to thrive. There are numerous studies illustrating the power of connection and its relation to brain development as well.

In a study done with monkeys, baby rhesus monkeys choose a “loving/warm” effigy over a “cold/hard” one providing only food. Warmth and connection over food! Rogers findings lay out a foundation that can help in rebuilding those connections. He’s written a map for it. What we tend to see in the disconnect, as Rogers states, is our inability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. When we see people as objects outside of ourselves to: control, judge and ridicule, the recipe for cruelty and nasty behavior is set. This in my opinion is what leads to the problems we readily see in the headlines or in large part a consequence of that disconnection.

Rogers points out that psychotherapy in general and relationships of all kinds improve when people relate to themselves and one another in what he calls authentic (real) ways. In other words, when people feel safe to be themselves and are accepted for who they are (humans with inherent worth) in unconditional, real, and empathic ways (ability to take another’s perspective). The more we practice this skill to relate the better we fare health wise, as: anxiety, depression and other maladies usually decrease.

One can readily surmise that relating to others can lead to greater tolerance of difference because our defenses and fears decrease when we view others with respect, honesty and curiosity. We don’t have to agree on everything, but we can respectfully disagree and yet still appreciate each other as individuals (This is the sentiment).

I also agree with Rogers' view that we are not “sick” for all of us are unique in our own ways and are doing the best that we can even when we are not feeling particularly well. I think it is a matter of figuring out who we are and deciding for ourselves what course we want our lives to take and in being aware of the health of our relationships. This is simply put, but it sure as hell is not easy and takes work. A relationship in my opinion is a living organism. If you do not nourish it, it suffers and eventually dies. Rogers also points out that humans are constantly evolving and “becoming” and that there is no destination. Life is a process of: unfolding, growing, maturing and learning.

Whenever there is disconnect, (which is bound to happen) if I have enough presence to be honest about how I am feeling and more importantly feel safe to express those feelings, usually that has been the space where my relationships have gotten stronger and healthier. From my own experience, I agree with what Rogers intends when he discusses that our connection with other people is our key to survival. This skill of relating is one that we can’t continue to overlook and I think that it is worth focusing on in our rapid and ever changing world.

How do you think you can work on your skill of relating/communicating authentically today? How can you explore your inner self in real and accepting ways? Would you be willing to sit with and observe whatever thoughts and feelings that come up for just 5 minutes? Wanna talk about it? Don’t text me, you can actually call me.

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