Empathy is a Vital Part of the Heroic Man’s Toolbox

active listening 2At some point, we all wonder if we, or the people around us, are “crazy.” Setting aside how socially tone-deaf the use of that term is in relation to the still-lingering stigma surrounding mental illness, it’s not unnatural to worry about the intentions of the human beings we encounter. It’s part of our subconscious survival mechanism to be wary of others.

While it’s wise to be aware of the potential for others to harm us, and to be prepared to defend ourselves when necessary, we must try to curb the tendency to conflate mental illness with violence. Studies have shown that mental illness does not predictably result in violent behavior. Unfortunately, the public perception of a strong link between the two still exists, despite the fact that research has shown even psychopaths, for the most part, are more often non-violent.

Psychopathy and sociopathy are terms often used interchangeably because a significant behavioral aspect of both is lack of empathy. But even though these conditions express themselves in similar ways, experts believe that psychopathy is the result of biology; meaning, the brains of psychopaths are structurally different. In contrast, sociopathic tendencies are most likely the result of learned behaviors and belief systems.

Lack of empathy being a learned behavior is both good and bad news. The bad news is that lack of empathy has the potential to spread throughout society. The good news is that we can take conscious action to develop our emotional intelligence.

This is excellent news indeed because you can’t live heroically without empathy. Even though empathy is an inherent human trait, its expression can be suppressed by ideologies that teach prejudice, scapegoating and other forms of intolerance. Fearmongering based on demonizing other people is a massive factor in eroding empathy.

Unfortunately for men, many of us lack empathy because of how we were raised.

Toxic Masculinity and Lack of Empathy

Toxic masculinity is a condition that results when a man is raised to believe he must adhere to a limited spectrum of behaviors to be considered a “real man.” Someone has taught him that there is a specific set of traits that define masculinity, and everything outside that narrow set of traits is not “manly.”

Many men have been socialized to be continually intimidating, to induce fear in others to dominate them. Other toxic masculine teachings include violence being a cure-all for problems, extreme “lonerism” and suspicion of others (especially other men), and conflict being the natural state of the world.

Since suppression of emotions is also a key feature of toxic masculinity, lack of empathy in men is an inevitable result of the toxic masculine condition. If a man cannot permit himself to feel his own emotions, how can he understand or respect the emotions of others? If the only feelings you’ve been trained to express are anger, suspicion, and contempt, you cannot acknowledge the existence of other emotions as genuine, in yourself or others.

If you want to be an empathetic man, you can use the following methods to help uncover, engage, and develop your empathy.

Remember Life is Challenging for Everyone

You are not alone in the triumphs and tragedies of life. As the old expression goes, “be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Everyone alive has a burden to bear. Their struggles may be so different as to be incomprehensible to you, but that should not matter. Take solace in the fact that we all have problems, and use that as motivation to help others, as well as to ask for help when you need it.

If you trick yourself into feeling like no one suffers like you, you will tend to become bitter and jealous of others. Another truism says “comparison is the thief of joy.” If you convince yourself that someone else always has it better than you, you will become cynical. Avoid this trap as best you can!

Remember that Heroism Means Being a Trailblazer

An important of aspect of heroism is breaking free of the status quo. Heroes are those who step out of the norm of everyday society when it becomes evident that something in society needs to be changed for the better.

Today, scapegoating others for societal issues is once again on the rise, and is eroding the cohesion of our society as we degenerate into more and more internal bickering over ideological differences. We have forgotten to respect each other’s basic humanity, and the civil discourse of democracy has declined as a result.

We need healthy men to rise above this trend of demonizing the other. True strength is not being a “tough guy” that can kick everyone else’s ass. A strong man is someone who is secure enough in himself that the beliefs of others do not threaten him. He is confident that his skills, talents, and abilities will allow him to overcome whatever life and other people throw at him. This replaces stagnant and shallow scapegoating, which usually involves the false bravado of being judgmental towards others.

In other words, heroic men take positive action in the world to support themselves and others in the pursuit of living well, rather than passively mocking others from the supposed safety of dogmatic conviction.

Note that being a heroic man may require you to be empathetic to those with which you disagree, whether it be about religion, politics, or other worldviews. Someone needs to be the first to give others the benefit of the doubt. You may have to respect someone else’s humanity, even when they don’t give you the same courtesy.

If you do this, there is a chance that others will learn from your example. We cannot often change the minds others with our words, but sometimes our actions can indeed speak louder than words and can be much more persuasive.

Real Men Feel, for Themselves and Others

Remember, you can’t expect to be in touch with other people’s emotions if you won’t let yourself feel your own. This is the reason many men have an empathy problem. Toxic masculinity doctrine teaches men that emotions must be suppressed, so as not to appear “weak,” “gay,” or “like a girl.” In reality, real men allow themselves to feel the entire range of human emotions.

Also, heroic men know the teachings of positive psychology, which has shown us that emotions aren’t blind instincts against which we are powerless. Instead, we can use positive emotions to build up our resilience and empathy.

Yes, our emotions can sometimes slip out of our control, but like breathing, we can also gain conscious control of this biological function. We can consciously cultivate emotional intelligence. Men, we have a responsibility, to ourselves and the world, to let ourselves empathize with others. If we don’t, the world will continue to slip further into division and intolerance.

This article was originally published at The Good Men Project.


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Author: Anthony Simeone

I'm a writer, speaker, and an advocate for everyday heroism. I have over two decades of experience in the practical application of literature, philosophy, psychology, and other disciplines. The culmination of my work is the Live the Hero program, a life philosophy that promotes personal development combined with service to others. Live the Hero combines the wisdom found in the arts and humanities with the latest discoveries related to research in heroism science and positive psychology. You can learn more at livethehero.com.

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