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Positivity Challenge Week 1: Reconnecting With Your Empathy

Well, 2012 is finally here. The year of the end of the world, or just when the Mayans got tired of making calendars. Rick Santorum wants to take away your birth control. It’s prime Seasonal Affective Disorder time. Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore have split. Almost every country in the world is going through a financial crisis. There’s a chance that the November elections will have a very, very scary result. And…Matt Lauer might be leaving the Today show at the end of the year.

There are a lot of things bringing us down right now. Realistically, though, the world won’t be ending by Christmas, so the only way to combat all of the negativity swirling around you at the moment is to make a conscientious effort to bring in more positivity. While I’m by no means an expert in positivity, I have spent the last year trying to make myself more positive in ways big and small. The people around me can vouch for the success of my tactics (most of the time, at least). Every other week, I’ll talk about a specific aspect of positivity and give you a challenge for the weeks ahead. Feel free to share your ideas, encouragement, progress, and suggestions in the comments!
Our first challenge is going to be reconnecting with our Empathy. This might seem like kind of a strange challenge to start with, but I feel that Empathy is the best foundation for Positivity. When you can put yourself in the shoes of someone else and see the reasons behind their actions, it is so much easier to prevent the buildup of negative energy within yourself.

Empathy is kind of a hot topic at the moment, after aEmpathy Definition study released by the University of Michigan found that the empathy of college students dropped significantly after the year 2000. Exposure to media, reality shows, and use of social media are all things that the study pointed to as factors in students’ lack of empathy. Without saying any of those are terrible things, I can definitely see where the connections are. Media portrayal is frequently one sided, leading us to have one-sided opinions that we steadfastly stick to. Reality shows can really bring out the worst in you, too: how can you have empathy for someone who’s getting paid to showcase the worst sides of themselves? Social media can be so overwhelming that you can get burned out at being concerned for all of your Facebook friends. Add to this the narcissism that reality TV encourages (maybe I can get paid to be terrible, too!) and social media can foster (yes, I can tell everyone about every minute of my day on six different services) and it’s a perfect storm in which empathy has no place.

Reconnecting with empathy can make our day to day lives better, though. A recent SELF article examined ways that empathy (or lack thereof) can affect your health, friendships and work performances. “An empathetic boss,” the story states, “is apt to foster an environment where creativity thrives. If she gets her staff’s perspective, she’ll be able to anticipate and solve problems; employees also will feel freer to take risks.” If you’re not the woman at the top, the magazine offers this advice for building a more empathetic environment:

Yet even if you happen to have a boss who lacks the empathetic knack, “it’s possible to shift your office culture toward collaborative rather than competitive,” says Simon Rego, Psy.D., director of psychology training at the Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, New York. Say a coworker is late to a crucial meeting because she has a sick child. “You can either be critical, or you can offer support and pinch-hit for her, then fill her in later on what she missed,” Rego says. Do the latter, and she’ll get the message that you have her back, which means that when the time comes, she’ll have yours, too.”

Think about the way you’ve reacted to a challenge or a confrontation recently. What was your first impulse for a response? Was it a negative, knee-jerk reaction? When surrounded by negativity, our first impulse will almost always be in keeping with that spirit (and vice versa, for that matter). When surrounded by angry shoppers and, after waiting 20 minutes to check out, the cashier tells you your card is declined with attitude, your first response is most likely anger. When you’ve worked on a huge project for months and your boss comes back with only criticism, your first response is defensive. When you come home and your home-all-day housemate hasn’t done anything and the place is a disaster, your first response is frustration.

Challenging yourself to push your empathy can help you to re-frame the situation and release some of the negativity that’s pulsing within you. Those shoppers have been going through the same stress you have and that cashier is just doing her job. It’s not her fault that your card was declined, so your anger shouldn’t find its target on her. Your boss is under deadlines and pressures of her own and is only trying to please the people above her with the best work you can offer. Your housemate, while home all day, isn’t your housekeeper and probably has a multitude of things going through their mind that are taking more of a priority than the dishes. Re-framing it this way (that’s become one of my favorite words, so get used to it) can help you take a step back from your emotional, subjective first response, and allow you to respond in a more productive way.

Challenge January 11, 2012

This week’s challenge: When presented with a challenge or a conflict or anything that raises your hackles, instead of responding instantly, stop and ask yourself “Why is this person saying/doing/thinking that?” Try to address the challenge in a way that takes that into consideration. For the cashier: “Must be happening a lot this time of year. Let me try another card,” and give a smile to the (probably annoyed) person behind you. For your boss: “Thanks for the input. The next draft will be even better.” For your housemate: “Was it a long day for you? Man, it was a long day for me. I’m going to empty out the dishwasher; do you mind throwing some clothes in the laundry and then we can crash and watch House together?”

Mantra January 11, 2012

For each challenge, I’ll also give you a mantra related to the challenge–something to remind you when the tasks are extra difficult. This week’s mantra is one that’s not necessarily empathetic, but definitely helps me re-frame my gut reactions to challenges. “I cannot change the actions of others but I take responsibility for my reactions to them.” If you want a reminder of your mantra for the next two weeks, feel free to click the image below to download a wallpaper sized version.

Positivity Challenge Mantra Jan 11, 2012

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional or mental health expert and there are problems that positivity cannot overcome, so please do not take this advice in lieu of a doctor’s care.
Not all challenges will be relevant to everyone, so I welcome you to come and go as you please and take from each change what works for you! Please make sure to share your thoughts in the comments!

By Crystal Coleman

Florida girl living on the west coast. During the day, I consult in social media and community management. I have a really cute puppy (Elphaba) and a British husband (I keep him for his accent) as well as an unhealthy relationship with parentheses.

22 replies on “Positivity Challenge Week 1: Reconnecting With Your Empathy”

I think, when trying to be more empathetic towards others, to consider the fundamental attribution error.  When we look at other people’s behaviors we tend to blame them on a constant personality trait rather than a (bad) situation.  Like when we see someone else trip we blame it on them being clumsy but when we trip there was an irregularity on the floor.  Or the snappy cashier is just an ass rather than them having had a long, bad day.  I guess my point here is to make sure when interacting with others that you consider situational reasons for why they might have done something or acted a certain way.  I know it’s helped me on a more day-to-day basis.

This may win the award for “Ironic post of the day”, but I’ve found that blog typically have contributed to my cynicism and decreased empathy towards people. I tend to read many political blogs and or celeb gossip blogs, which inherently make me hate the world most of the time. Part of my new years resolution is to increase positivity in my life. Not in a cheesy way, but to try to think positiviely and see things from multiple perspective rather than being perpetually snarky.

Ironic maybe, but totally understandable, and something I fall into the trap of, too. It’ll definitely be a topic all unto itself. In fact, noticing how much articles about Sarah Palin or other infuriating people would bother me was one of the things that got me thinking more actively about positivity. These things that I hated so much were sapping SO much energy from me and they weren’t worth it.

So, yeah, definitely look for a whole challenge focused on that. I’ll give you the tentative mantra for that piece to tide you over: “Promote what you love instead of focusing on what you hate.”


I agree wholeheartedly that empathy is the foundation for positivity, and that it is one of the most lacking things in the world around us. Privilege in itself pretty much boils down to the inability to be empathetic to the plights of others, no? I find myself imploring people to be a little more empathetic in arguments way too often. I am as self-centered as the next person, but a little empathy goes a long freaking way. Thank you for this article. It is an excellent reminder.

Oh, it’s a total struggle, but I think having a group of people trying it together and sharing their progress and fallbacks will keep everyone really mindful of it. And I plan on one of the topics being all about not beating yourself up when you just can’t muster up the positive vibes (you know, with a catchier title).

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