How to create mental space for empathy when getting irritated

Being empathetic and looking at a particular situation from someone else’s perspective can help us decrease conflicts and give and receive feedback more effectively. But when you’re seeing red, it’s harder to shift gears and be motivated to think about what someone else might be thinking. 

To allow ourselves to look at potential conflicts through the lens of empathy, I’ve found four strategies of self-awareness: 1) don’t trust your first emotional reactions; 2) question your interpretations; 3) your standards of behaviour are different than others’; 4) appeal to humour to laugh at yourself.

It was a beautiful Summer afternoon when my husband and I were in the car, driving around to do some errands. In the following second, we could see a biker stopping in the middle of the road and starting a talk with the driver in the car in front. It was a narrow street. In addition, some cars were parked on one side, thus making it impossible to overtake. We had to stop the car, watching two strangers having a good time talking.

“Outrageous!” my sense of righteousness got activated. Our car seemed to have been invisible to the two men.

Moments of potential conflict like this are good opportunities to practice empathy. The problem is that there is little room for perspective-taking when the brain is loaded with the unconscious interpretation of the situation and overwhelmed by negative emotional reactions.

A tiny spark of awareness shone light on the feeling of fury for what was perceived to be unacceptable behaviour. A shy voice whispered, “How about your commitment to empathy?”. A choice had to be made.

To honk?

To shout at them to get out of the way?

To make a neutral observation about the fact that the two individuals were blocking the traffic?

To wait quietly?

To get out of the car and ask if I can help them in any way?

To get out of the car, join them and crack a joke about the situation?

As my husband and I were debating which course of action to take, the biker and the driver continued on their separate ways, freeing the road.

Had the conversation lasted longer than it did, my commitment to empathy would have probably been overridden. The impulse of teaching the two strangers a lesson of politeness would have been too strong to control. Most certainly, I would have honked.

Thanks to this incident, I could experience how self-awareness and emotional control are prerequisites for perspective-taking. To be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, first you may want to sort out the emotional reaction engendered by how you yourself see the situation. Here are four strategies of how to do that:

  1. Be aware of the anger, anxiety or irritation you may feel. Stay present with those feelings but try not to trust them too much. What is it about you that makes you react the way you do? In this story, the expectation that traffic rules must be observed was not met. Anger is one way to react. What would another person you have high regard of do in a similar situation?
  2. Behind any emotional reaction, there is an unconscious interpretation of a particular context and we quickly jump to conclusions. Try not to take for granted those conclusions, i.e., two men are intentionally messing up the traffic. There are many assumptions involved in the interpretation, which may not reflect the true story. Maybe the two strangers were discussing an urgent topic. Maybe they hadn’t seen each other in a long time and were thrilled to meet by chance, on the road. Who knows what drove them to have the particular behaviour?
  3. Your sense of respecting rules is different than others’. Assuming the interpretation of the situation is right to begin with and we had crossed ways with two inconsiderate human beings. Would any outbursts help them change their ways of behaving? It would be like shouting at a mosquito that its bites cause an itchy sensation and irritate the skin and expect it’s not going to bite you or someone else next time.
  4. Humour can be a great saviour. You may reframe your interpretation and emotional reactions in a way that makes you laugh at yourself. Laughter enables the limbic system of your brain cool down faster.


The biker had a content face as he was biking one meter distance from our car. He didn’t look our way. Let’s face it. Sometimes you just can’t understand why others do what they do. Wish them well and hold onto your commitment to practice empathy.

 

What Are We Celebrating on Mother’s Day?

“The heartfelt connection we all yearn for is locked away within our everyday routine as parents, teachers, and friends.” Lawrence J.Cohen, Playful Parenting

On the second Sunday of May, Finland is one of the European countries that celebrates Mother’s Day.

“Mother’s Day Coffee Morning, Friday 10th of May, 8-10am. All mums, grandmothers, welcome for breakfast, circle and activity.”

This message was pinned at the entrance door of the daycare where my 5 year old is enrolled. Consequently, I cleared the morning work schedule. I also cleared the usual clutter of the mind and instead chose to focus on my kid. And what a lovely morning we had!

Stepping inside the daycare together, instead of giving an automatic goodbye hug at the locker room and rushing to work. Holding him in my lap during the morning circle. Letting him lead me to his favourite play areas. Engaging in different role plays with him. Eating from the same plate at the small table where he is having the snacks twice a day.

“It’s so nice to see the bond between the two of you!” one of the teachers commented as she passed by the table where we were eating.

We did have a moment of deep connection, which gave such a boost to the remaining part of the morning.

These mornings of connection can happen each day. If only I allow them by creating that space of mindfulness. It can be short and sweet. But those small minutes of synchronisation help maintain the mother-child bond.

In my world, starting with today, the Mothers’ Day is a reminder that the connection between mother and child should not be taken for granted.

 

Why do we read books?

Some of us like to read. Because we are curious to know everything about anything – history, anthropology, biomedicine, artificial intelligence, etc. We are driven by the desire of understanding where we came from and where we are heading.

Some others are driven by the need to feel. They read fiction – romance, science fiction, horror, etc – to make them feel alive.

But you can’t feel alive or excel at intellectually understanding a field without having sensitivity to life. The want of sensitivity pushes us to read, to wrap our souls around the gentleness that authors bless some of their characters with. Once we gained sensitivity, we may feel one with life, a joyful connection that we sometimes see in someone else’s eyes.

Sensitivity is the light that shows us the way in the labyrinth of knowledge. Once we gained sensitivity, we may get interested in making an effort to grow the knowledge.

Knowledge does good to the mind. Kindness does good to the soul. We badly need them both. Continue reading. In addition, please practice lovingness.

 

The taste of impermanence

Everybody knows Notre-Dame, the cathedral at the foundation of the Parisian cultural heritage, the place where Victor Hugo imagined the plot of the novel The HunchBack of Notre-Dame.

Yesterday, the unexpected fire destroyed the loved monument. Shock and disbelief. The fire stirred the memories of millions of people who ever stepped inside and smelled the air of sanctity imbued in the old walls. It crushed the dreams of those who were about to visit.

Nothing lasts forever. We trust in transformation and hope in reconstruction. But where would Quasimodo live now?   

 

When you can’t see through another’s eyes, when you can’t listen with the ears of another, when you can’t feel with the heart of another – Ask Mr Froggy

On the occasion of the World StoryTelling Day, at the event organised by the Nordic Culture Point on March 21st, I wrote and told an empathy story for an audience of 8th grade children in Helsinki. Here I share it. In case you like it, you are welcome to read it to your kids. 

mrfroggy

When the other is a boy named Alam

Once upon a time, there was a place in West Asia, a land called Iran. Somewhere over there, in Tehran to be more precise, Alam was born. One year ago, his family moved to Helsinki. Alam is 7. Today is his first day of school.

He’s so nervous that he wouldn’t have any breakfast. He’s clumsy talking the language of Finns. Other than his baby sister and Mr Froggy, he doesn’t have any other friends. Who is going to want to be his friend?

As if his mother read his thoughts, she suggested. “Would you like to take Mr Froggy in your backpack?”

His face brightened up. He dashed to his bedroom where Mr Froggy was lying under his pajamas. It was the gift on Alam’s 5th anniversary from his grandmother and uncle. What for others was just another soft toy, for Alam, Mr Froggy was a reminder of the affection his grandmother would put into preparing his favourite sour-berry tea.

Whenever Alam would ask his father why they moved to Finland, his father would reply, “We are here so you can have a better life.”

“Here, your sister can live a life of freedom.” the mother would add.

“But it’s just the four of us here.” Alam would think to himself.

Back in Iran, the whole family used to get together almost every week, sometimes twice a week and every time there was a gathering, there was music, dance and poetry. And there are 30 or 40 people and lots of food and children running around. Alam missed running around those people.

Mostly, he missed playing the seven stones game. He would be more in the losing than winning team but he didn’t mind that. He liked the excitement of the game when he was chased with a ball by his uncle, the most playful family member.

Meeting Minttu and Emilia

This day of August, Alam and his mother were approaching school, when they heard a cry. They looked in the direction of the sound to see a girl and her father standing next to a tree, looking upwards. He gazed up with curiosity to see a cat sitting on a branch.

“If you can help someone in need, just do it.” was the morale of the stories that his uncle used to tell him.

Alam let go off his mom’s hand and ran next to the girl. “What’s the cat’s name?” he asked.

“Minttu.” The girl answered sobbingly.

Without further ado, Alam started climbing up the tree. The girl stopped crying. The father looked puzzled.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” his mom asked.

Alam couldn’t even hear her. He was getting closer to the cat and all he could think of was that this was his moment to put in practice all the training on calling cats that he’d done with his uncle.

When he was 5, Alam was fond of feeding animals. His uncle taught him how to call the neighbor’s cat to their yard to feed it treats. Alam was curious, “How fat a cat can become?”

This cat was not as fat as the neighbor’s cat. “Obviously, they don’t feed you well.” Alam said. Raising his voice, he called the cat to him, “Minttu!”

Minttu pricked its ears.

“Onko nälkä?” he asked while realising he actually talked in Finnish. “I’m good at cat Finnish.” and he felt proud of himself.

He gently took his rucksack off his back and fumbled for the pencil box, gently pushing Mr. Froggy out of his way. He took out one pen and tapped it against the plastic cover of the box. The tapping made a clicking noise which draw Minttu’s curiosity. The cat walked close enough towards him that he could grab it in his arms. He started singing in a high pitch voice – which he thought was similar to Minttu’s voice – some of the food he used to give to the neighbors’ cat: ham, minced meat, eggs.

When they got off the tree, the girl gave a strong hug to both Alam and Minttu.

“I’ll take this adventurous cat from you.” the girl’s father said.

“Emilia.” said the girl, stretching her hand. “Thank you.”

Getting introduced to the new school environment

They waited for Emilia’s father to bring Minttu back into their flat and they walked together the short remaining distance to the school yard.

The teacher was waiting for all the kids and parents to gather around her. She shook hands with everyone, including Alam and his mom. The group of 1st graders would get a walk-through the school.

Alam waved goodbye, “See you in 3 hours, mom.” while finding it hard to hold his tears.

The school walls seemed empty compared to the walls of the daycare he used to attend back in his home-country. His daycare teacher used to adorn the classroom walls with the kids’ drawings. Alam liked to see his drawings on the wall. It made him feel at home. “Maybe the new teacher will do the same as soon as we make some drawings.” he thought.

In the first recess, while in the school yard, one of the bigger kids kicked Alam from behind. Emilia saw that. She approached Alam, took his hand and said, “Violence is not allowed here. You can let the teacher know about it.”

“Would you want to meet my best friend, Mr Froggy?” Alam asked. “He’s wise, let’s hear from him, what to do when someone hits you out of a blue?”

What would Mr. Froggy advice?

 

 

 

The Awakening of Meaning

The fundamental drive in life is the pursuit of meaning, writes Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning. Through a combination of external and internal circumstances, meaning will come to the surface of conscious awareness.

Through a grace of God or lucky coincidence, two people intersect. Their souls get swiftly entangled and magnetised. A vibrant energy shakes up their inner lives with the fullness of being. They now see that meaning is life. The meaning of exploring oneself through perceptions, senses, intuitions, interests, play and acts of courage.  

 

The Beauty of Being Human

Each human interaction has a flavour
Some flavours are the perfect match for the heart,
enriching it.
The rest are opening the mind to other realities.
We meet a new person.
We feel what she might feel in the moment.
We start talking, we get a glimpse into her experiences.
Beyond feelings and perspectives,
We feel an energy that is specific to that person.
I don’t know how a psychologist would call this energy.
I call it the transcendent soul.

Why Entrepreneurial Parents Need Frequent Breaks from Their Work

In Helsinki, Summer days are numbered. I can’t help it but sharing some of the insights I collected during the Summer holidays. This reading is mostly useful for parents of preschoolers who want to dedicate time to their kids and at the same time, have a passion and commitment to their work.  

Introduction

When the Summer vacation started, I felt anxious and overwhelmed. I was obsessed with all the ideas about how to move on forward with my projects. For each project, plenty of research to do, social media presence, etc. Countless reasons and scenarios of why and how to continue the entrepreneurial work.

Meanwhile, my kids had started their vacation. Husband and grandparents busy. To whom could I shift the responsibility of taking care of them, throughout July?  

We packed and travelled to my hometown where we spent the entire month of July. After the first week of tormenting and conflicting feelings between the identity of the work-self and that of the mother-self, I made up my mind:

  • I’ll focus my attention on my kids for four weeks.  
  • I’ll not touch my laptop.

The vacation broken down in weeks

In the first week, I kept staring at my laptop. “Should I open it? Maybe it is a bad idea to focus on my kids entirely.” At some point, I made a compromise with myself. “Fine. I’ll open the laptop to read articles for pure pleasure and personal interest. Nothing related to the professional pursuits.”  

By the end of the second week, play ideas were popping into my head. Occasionally, I would feel the fear of missing out on the latest news and ideas conjured up by peers who were still working hard and long days.

By the end of the third week, I could observe the worlds of family members and close friends. Learning to be compassionate with their thoughts and emotions. Offering emotional support.

Now and then, the fear about the uncertainty of my entrepreneurial work would bother me like the noise of a mosquito in the silence of the bedroom, at night. The fear would distract me from what was going on around.  

By the end of the fourth week, I was relaxed! I stopped feeling guilty for admiring the nature, in my parents’ garden, many times a day.

What I found out

  • Switching off the work related thoughts can’t be done completely but it’s worth to try.
  • Your kids will be happy to see you present, both physically and emotionally.
  • At the end of the four weeks vacation, I laughed at myself and at the work ideas I had in the beginning of the month.
  • The higher quality work-ideas need time to breathe and work themselves out in the subconscious mind.
  • The more you get fixated with an idea and push it towards implementation when you are highly anxious, the more likely you’ll get to a poor outcome.
  • When you have conflicting personal and professional values, just take a break. You’ll understand better what’s important to you and how to act accordingly, in a given circumstance.     

Conclusions

When you hear yourself thinking, “I can’t afford to take a vacation now.”, that is the moment to look for a travel companion, pack up and leave town. Maybe you don’t need to go away for one month, the way I did. One weekend might be good enough, as long as you turn the attention towards the people around you and put on hold your desires and ideas.  

 

The alternative to feeling like a failure

As a child, I used to look up to my parents and other adult relatives because they seemed to have figured out who they are and how they wanted to live.

Now when I am an adult, I realise we, adults don’t really know what we are doing. Moreover, we feel like a failure because we should be knowing what we are doing.

Harsh criticism. Tit for tat attitudes. Peer expectations. Social pressure. These are things that disturb the mind.

And then, we can do one simple thing well – we can breathe.

Breathe now

Breathe in life

Breathe out gratitude

Observe the breath

Get curious about the new possibilities to deeper awareness.   

 

 

How to tame the negative-self talk

Self-compassion is the ability to be kind with the stream of negative thoughts and emotions that we experience. Most of us have thoughts like, “I’m not good enough.”, “I am a failure.”, “I am a bad person”, which lead to feeling tensed, irritated, defensive and stressed.

If you are like me, you may want to be grounded in a relaxed and joyful state of being. But how can we make the transition from a “stressed most of the time” state to a “relaxed and enthusiastic” state? Self-compassion can create the bridge between these two states.

How could self-compassion become a habit of the mind? 

I have practiced short self-compassion meditations on and off, for 2 years now. For me, being self-compassionate is about allowing myself to feel bad when things seem to fall apart. How do I do that?

1. By accepting that my ego wants me to survive and succeed. As a result, it doesn’t like it when there is some evidence pointing in the direction of failure.
2. By reminding myself that my ego is like a little child that needs patience until the day when it grows old enough to understand that the way it perceives the experiences does not reflect the ultimate truth.

Take this example: you are working on a project you care about. At one point, your boss or a colleague gives you negative feedback about your work. Self-compassion comes in to soothe the “I feel like a failure” thinking. By paying close attention to how the negative thoughts are taking form in your mind, you can learn to reformulate them so that you create a shift from negative thinking to constructive thinking.

Instead of thinking, “I feel like a failure now.”, you can overwrite that thought with “Now I can see the work I have done from my boss’s perspective.” This is the tipping point when we can take some distance from the bad feelings, from taking personally the perceived critique to “There are different opinions on my work.”

Everyone has an ego who wants them to succeed and an unique way of perceiving. Let’s be compassionate with all the suffering that results when 2 or more perceptions seem to collide.