The Way I Empathize
Empathy is different for everyone. Some of us really have to work at it. Some of us aren't conscious of its use. Some of us are natural empathizers. Some of us never figure empathy out at all. Empathy is also more nuanced than just "I care vs. I don't care at all". You can empathize with someone entirely and still make a tough decision that could hurt them. You can manipulate the empathy of others, sometimes deliberately (like a trained salesperson) sometimes without even knowing it (like a codependent family member seeking attention through worn out paths). You can definitely empathize too much... to the point that it's hard to make any moves without worrying about who you'll offend.
I pretty naturally see the needs and feelings of the people around me. I'm good at anticipating/predicting where people are at and why. I can wrap my mind around pretty much any side of a debate--at least the 'how they got there' part.
Maybe it's a skill, honed deftly by years of trying to be liked in a community where I didn't look like anyone else. Maybe it's a natural ability, or lens through which I tend to view the world. Over the years, I've learned a few ways to make my personal brand of empathy work better for me.
1. I lead with positive intent.
33 years of life research has shown that it's better to assume the people I interact with have good intentions and know how to be nice, and when it appears they don't, I try not to judge them. I don't know know everything that's going on with everybody. So I give them the benefit of the doubt, and if their actions/energy doesn't vibe with mine, I use #2 below.
2. I keep a personal and professional distance.
It took me some time to figure out how to say no, nicely and with respect. I felt truly more liberated in my late 20's and early 30's when I practiced saying no to the things I knew I didn't want to participate in, without bringing down the vibe of the person who asked. Just say, "No, thank you" with a genuine smile and hold the person in your mind's eye with a view of genuine respect and love. Once you figure it out, as an empathetic person, it feels incredibly freeing to be able to 'do you' without first wading through everyone else's emotions and opinions.
3. I check myself before I wreck myself.
There are some things/people/concepts that I know will drain me if I spend too long trying to hash them out. There are other times when I get too riled up on behalf of one side I feel passionate about, and need to reign myself in and be a better listener...to understand both sides. Again, it takes experience and a bit of work to learn how to do it regularly, but it is incredibly useful for energy/mood efficiency and a greater understanding and acceptance of the world around you.
4. I aim my empathy inward for true self care.
I talk about this all the time, because everyone including me needs the consistent reminder. You are not very helpful to a loved one or a good cause if you are not first helpful to yourself. When your basic physical, mental, and spiritual needs aren't met to a certain standard, you are in no position to try to help other people meet their own needs. It sounds easy enough, but it gets tricky because we want to be (or be seen as) selfless martyrs, or we train ourselves to see what other people need while ignoring our own stuff. Perceiving 'flaws' or needs in other people can actually give us clues to our own needs, desires, and things we might benefit from working on in ourselves. That person at work that drives you crazy? Whatever it is they do or say that bothers you might be a trait you need more or less of.