Learning to empathize with others is a key skill in social interactions. If you understand what other people are thinking and feeling, you'll be able to be a better friend and have better interactions.
However, to learn to empathize with others, you first need to learn to empathize with yourself.
That sounds really touchy-feeling but stick with me. This is important, and incredibly practical. Learning to empathize with yourself means learning to understand and accept what you're feeling and why you're feeling it.
If you're feeling angry, you should be able to recognize "I feel angry" and understand the reasons why you feel angry. You should be ok with feeling your emotions, and not ignore them or stifle them.
Fundamentally, if something really bad happened to you, it should be OK that you feel sad. You should give yourself permission to feel sad. Sometimes, we get this idea that we need to act happy all the time, or that our problems are not as important as the problems of others, so we feel selfish when we are sad or upset.
But that's not true. Your problems matter, because you matter. And if something is happening to hurt you or make you feel sad, it's ok to express that sadness, and to let yourself feel that sadness. You don't have to keep that bottled up.
Accepting Your Emotions
Of course, it's a great idea to try to improve your situation so whatever is causing you to feel sad isn't causing that sadness anymore. You don't have to STAY sad.
And, although everyone gets sad or angry sometimes, if it seems like you're sad or angry all the time, you should think seriously about seeing a counselor. Just like a doctor can help you heal physically, a counselor can help you heal emotionally, and there's no shame in talking to one.
That goes for more than just understanding emotions, by the way. If you're struggling with depression or anxiety or loneliness or any number of other things, see a counselor. There's no shame in it, and it might just change---or save---your life. (If you need to talk to someone right away, call 1-800-442-HOPE and you'll be connected to a volunteer counselor for free.)
But the point is that you should give yourself permission to experience the feelings you have. If something bad happened to you, it's ok that you feel sad. You should feel comfortable telling friends and family what you're feeling, even when you're not feeling positive, or even when you're not sure why you feel the way you do. On a fundamental level, you should accept that your emotions are a part of you, and just as you need to accept yourself, you need to accept your emotions.
Take a second and re-read through that paragraph again. No, really. Go back and read it. I'll wait.
Understanding Your Emotions
Ask yourself seriously if these things are true for you. Do you understand the cause of your emotions when you feel something? Do you give yourself permission to feel an emotion? Do you accept that it's ok to feel the way you do? Do you have a healthy way to express those emotions?
If the answer to any of those questions is "No" or "I'm not sure", then take some time to think through how you experience emotions. Ask yourself why you are answering in that way, and what you need to do to better empathize with yourself. Talk with someone you trust and get their advice and support, or consider making an appointment with a counselor.
It might take some time to process through this, but it's worth the investment. Having a solid and healthy understanding of your own emotions helps you to live a happy, healthy life. Humans are emotional beings, and your emotions are a part of who you are.
And, of course, emotions are a part of everyone else, too. If you understand what it's like when you feel an emotion, you'll be better able to understand and interact with a person who is feeling something similar. So even if you don't want to understand your emotions for your own sake, do it for the sake of your relationships with others. It's worth it.
Thinking It Through
I have an exercise for you to do today. It might seem a little weird, but trust me---I think you'll find a lot of benefit to it.
As you go through the day, keep an eye on your emotions, and look for the times in which you are feeling something (whether that something is frustration or happiness or sadness or boredom or anything else). Then, take the time to think through why you're feeling that way.
I want you to go below the surface here. It's easy to have someone cut you off in traffic and say "Well, I feel angry because I was cut off." But if you think a bit deeper, you might find that you're angry because you the other driver disrespected you, and you don't feel respected in your other relationships. Or, you might feel angry because you're hurting from a hard time that you're going through, but you're not acknowledging that pain. You might even realize you don't have a good reason to be angry, and then your anger fades away.
Think through your emotion in whatever way works best for you. Perhaps you might set aside some time at the end of the day to go for a walk, so you have a quiet time to think. Perhaps you could write down your thoughts on your emotions for the day, and then compare your notes from different days to look for trends. Or perhaps you should ask a friend or family member to help you understand your emotions, and talk it over with them.
Whatever the result, I think you'll find at the end of the day you understand yourself a bit better, which in turn will make it easier for you to understand others. Give it a try. And when you feel you are starting to understand your own emotions, read on to find out how to understand the emotions of others.