Empathy: The Starting Point To Building A Better World

“You’ve gotta watch Breaking Bad. Watch a few episodes and it’s going to hook you.”

“What’s it about?”

“Walter White, a brilliant scientist turned chemistry teacher, gets diagnosed with cancer and starts cooking meth to pay for his treatment and support his pregnant wife and disabled son.”

“That’s not really my speed.”

My friend Scott recommends shows for me to watch all the time, and they’re usually great, so I decided to give Breaking Bad a go, even though the premise didn’t really appeal to me, but he was right: I sped through the first four seasons in about two weeks, and what really struck me was the fact that I was rooting for a man who would kill someone — even an innocent person — to “protect his family.” Why was I cheering on someone to ruin people’s lives with a drug that led to violence, greed, and the thirst for power? Why was I rooting against a well-intentioned DEA agent driven by justice to save people’s lives and get a dangerous drug off the streets? The answer: I saw myself in Walter White — not because I wanted to cook meth or murder my rivals (I like my rivals) — but because I, too, have had my back against the wall. I, too, have been doubted by even the people closest to me. So when Walter made the decision to end someone else’s life, I found myself conflicted internally because, even though I would never consider murder, I could understand what motivated Walter to do it.

And that’s something the world needs more of — not murder, but empathy. Being able to see the world through the eyes of people unlike yourself is the key to understanding why they do what they do. That’s why we love stories: we get to see the protagonist’s world through his or her eyes while rooting for them to overcome their adversities; and the well-written shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, or Dexter will have us rooting for the protagonist, even though he or she is willing to do some unsavory deeds to get ahead.

Now these are all fictional stories, but our capacity to empathize with the people in these shows and judge them based on why they do what they do, rather than what they do, is a skill we can use with people in the real world who are unlike us. To be able to see through the eyes of another, even if he is a diametric opposite, can help you communicate better, reach agreement, build a relationship, and even make you happier. Though you may not be willing to do what someone else has done, to be able to connect with why he does it is the first step to bringing unlike people together — a must in an increasingly connected world.

Whether you agree with me or not, chances are we both want to live better lives in a better world, and that is a great starting point for coming together and creating it.

Anxiety: The Attack No One Sees Coming And 5 Ways You Can Help

I never thought it would happen to me.

To David Horning – the dude who preaches mental toughness, emotional intelligence, and leadership when others experience stress. I had my first anxiety attack earlier this week, and, for a moment, it crashed my entire worldview.

For awhile, I resisted it, throwing away everything I’ve learned and taught others about dealing with stress, overcoming adversity, and accepting reality. It shook me to my core, crumpling up my identity like a discarded joke premise and throwing it into a California wildfire, then dousing it with hundreds of gallons of water, and backing over the ashes with a big rig. After all of these years of preaching to “Accept the present moment,” “Look for the opportunity,” and “What can I you with what you know?” I became someone who was saying, “You’re a piece of shit,” “You’re not worth it,” and “Everyone should feel bad for me.”

Talk about a 180.

After a few days of reaching out to people around me – my family, my girlfriend, and my roommates – I came to the realization that this was a test to challenge the mettle of the identity I had created for myself over the years. And now, sitting in a crowded coffee shop as the aroma of chai lattes and the sounds of ambient music fill the air, I realize that now I have a chance to create a connection with those struggling to connect with others experiencing difficulties – whether they’re colleagues, friends, or family. All it took was a fresh perspective, and that’s what I hope to share with you through the 5 things you can do when someone you know is suffering from anxiety.

1. Communicate That You’re There To Support Them By Listening

This can be as simple as a comforting hand on their shoulder, eye contact, or a smile. It can be verbal reassurance that you’re willing to take the time to simply be in the room. It can be in the form of a card, a voicemail, or an invitation to lunch to just hear their side of the story without any judgment. Sometimes just offering an ear can help them verbalize what they’re going through in a way that helps them discover the light at the end of the tunnel.

2. Don’t Give Advice Unless They Ask For It

The last thing you want to do is to tell a person going through a bout with anxiety what they should do. Sure, what you’re saying may make objective sense, but someone going through anxiety’s fight-or-flight response cannot see the full picture, no matter how sensible you are. It’s not that they don’t want to feel better – they do (duh) – but if they’re not ready, you’re only going to contribute to the anxiety. Giving advice will make them resist what you’re saying through argument (fight) or simply shut off to you and turn elsewhere (flight). Or they’ll just punch you and run away (fight-AND-flight). Unless they explicitly ask for your help, simply being there is the best action you can take.

3. Share Your Experience

Be real. Share the most gut wrenching story from your life; was there a time you faced crippling anxiety? Depression? Even suicidal thoughts? The moment that began shaking me were hearing from my dad – one of my role models – share how he couldn’t sleep for days at a time, had lingering pains in his chest, and cold sweats while he struggled to raise a young family amidst unemployment and a bad economy. Then, a good friend reached out to me about how he contemplated suicide amidst the worst anxiety attack in his life. Finally, my roommate – whom I’ve known for all of two months – opened up about his bouts with anxiety. Sharing that you’ve experienced the same symptoms, but have a different story offers a fresh perspective that can shake the sufferer out of their current tunnel vision. Notice how none of this involves giving advice.

4. Offer Perspective

Whatever they’re going through, there’s someone, somewhere who has had it worse and overcome it. When someone is experiencing extreme anxiety, all they’re thinking about is how bad they have it in that moment, and it’s incredibly difficult to shake this perspective. Telling a story about someone you know, someone you’ve heard of, or even sharing a humorous anecdote can provide a jolt of, “It could be worse.” The other night, I was wandering aimlessly through the grocery store on the phone with a buddy of mine. As I tried to pick out the Holy Grail of avocados (why are they only ripe for seven minutes!?), he put the image of living in the Middle Ages through the bubonic plague in my head. As stupid as it seems, it made me feel silly for thinking my problems were so bad and shook me out of my funk for the time being. Oh, and I found the perfect avocado.

5. Ask Open-Ended Questions

When they ask for your help, it may seem natural to simply tell them what to do next, but that’s not what they really want. They just want to know how to break out of their funk, but doing it in a way specific to them, and the best way to point them in that direction is to ask them open-ended questions that will help them find their own answers (no closed-ended questions that lead to yes or no answers). The goal is to help them discover answers that make them feel better about themselves, reframing the situation so they can find a path up, and asking them what actions they can take to get there. In doing this, I was able to see that the anxiety I was feeling was all self-inflicted, that I’ve overcome every roadblock ever put in front of me, and that I have growth opportunities all around me. Now, I have an action plan in place to grow myself, discover new things, and use this experience to help others. That’s why I’m posting this now – I was in the middle of reaching out to secure new speaking gigs when inspiration struck from a question my dad asked me: “What are some things you can do now?” If I can leverage my experience to offer ideas to people who are dealing with others with anxiety (or dealing with anxiety themselves), I have to take the opportunity to do so.

Without others lending a hug, empathy, perspective, and asking perspective-expanding questions, I’d be in a much worse place right now. If you know someone going through anxiety, reach out, and at the very least, let them know you’re there and just listen.

Who knows? You may be saving a life.