If you’ve been on social media recently then you’ve probably seen the memes about being kind to one another because we don’t know what the other person is going through. And this noble sentiment of having empathy for others is one that, hopefully, we strive for every day. Unfortunately, what tends to happen is life—we don’t sleep well, have bad days, get bad news, go through a rough patch—and our noble intentions get swept away under the wave of self-interest. We may get snappy with a barista or short with a grocery store cashier, and we consider it excusable because of what we are experiencing at the time. It’s not always intentional or done with vindictive motives. As with any behavior, there are a number of reasons that people behave the way they do.
Sometimes people act in a certain way because that is what they were taught. We all know that children imitate the behaviors they see from their parents or caregivers. So, when a child grows up watching adults lash out at others, there is a good chance that child will repeat that behavior when they are an adult. And that lesson becomes even more engrained when the adult lashes out at the child, practically ensuring that when the child becomes an adult, they will behave the same way.
People may also use their past as a way to excuse their behavior. They argue that because they experienced something difficult or traumatic in the their past, their behavior should be automatically exempted from any type of recourse or consequence. In extreme cases, they may try to use guilt and compassion from the other person as a means of avoiding consequences.
The thing that may help prevent this type of conduct is learning that we have to be responsible for our own actions. It is extremely important that we realize (and teach our children) that our own circumstances are not what determines how someone else should be treated. The things in our past that have caused us pain certainly contribute to how we perceive things, but, ultimately, we are the only ones to blame for our behavior. The best way to teach empathy to others is to model it. By being open with each other about what we are going through, apologizing for our poor behavior, asking for help, and making conscious decisions to act in certain ways despite our feelings, we can demonstrate to each other that everyone is deserving of kindness, regardless of their circumstances.