#MHAW16 - Extending and Receiving Empathy

It is now officially Mental Health Awareness Week! This is a week all about shedding light on the effects of mental illness, and paths to mental health and wellbeing, for people everywhere. Obviously, given the subject matter of this blog, it's kind of a big deal for me. The conversation is key to allowing people to be comfortable with the idea of themselves and the people around them suffering from something that isn't always automatically visible, or even easy to understand.

Mental health is something we have been getting to grips with at least talking about more openly in the past few years. Hopefully, events like this will give people opportunities to read more, learn more, share their own experiences, and allow us to grow as a collective in favour of a less negative, frightened, or dismissive response to people's illnesses.

In accordance with the theme for this year, Relationships, I would like to talk about one of the most important ways, in my opinion, to create and maintain and strengthen interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships of any kind: empathy. Imagining others complexly, in the words of John Green.

We have no clear concept of the suffering of others, nor the joys, but attempting to think of how we would feel when presented with the same situations as them can help us gain much more understanding. It helps us to view people as just that, as people who live, breathe, think, and feel as we do. Suddenly, you might find, we take more care with others. We treat them with the love and care we would like to be treated with once we have placed our hearts in their chests. We are able to love and to feel loved, and it can often bring us closer.

'empathy' by Ton Zijlstra via Flickr 
I also mentioned intrapersonal relationships, meaning the ones we have with ourselves. I mentioned them because I believe that our ability to extend empathetic feelings to others has a direct effect on our ability to show compassion to ourselves.

When I see friends tearing themselves apart over issues that can be easily resolved or forgotten and I advise them to do so, it holds a mirror up to me.

"Do I take my own advice? Are there things that I overthink and work myself up over? If they can make steps to change that, surely I can too. And if I know it's not easy for them, it won't be easy for me either."

You might even want to take it a step further: imagine some of your negative thoughts in the voice of one of your closest friends, take it as though you're listening to some of their concerns. How would you advise them? Would that same advice work for you? If so, take it and feel accomplished at problem solving. If not, consider why not? Are the reasons also negative and anxious assumptions, perhaps?

Above all, take care of yourselves and of others, even those you find difficult in some way because loving them despite that is a sign of maturity and wisdom that I would love to reach some day.

from printable leaflet via the Mental Health Foundation


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