One of the challenges in the modern world is the overwhelming amount of empathetic suffering we are exposed to.

The news cycle runs 24-7, and we are constantly being informed of more suffering that exists in the world.

Suffering is a natural part of our existence, and we cannot avoid it. Empathy comes along for that ride, and is a natural partner to the inevitable suffering that shows up.

Empathy is my capacity to put myself in your shoes, and feel the same way you do. When you feel joy, or love, and I have an empowered relationship to those feelings, my ability to empathize will feel good.

However, most of us don’t have much capacity to sit in anguish, sadness, listlessness or frustration. We have disempowering stories about these emotional states (they’re weak, they’re unproductive, they’re harmful, they mean something is wrong, etc.), and consequently, we try our best to avoid them.

We avoid these feelings in a number of ways. We try to fix them, try to cheer ourselves up, try to do something to distract ourselves, and so on.

These feelings represent aspects of the experience of life that we don’t want to be with, and consequently, empathy means that we don’t like being with other people in this same state.

If I sit with you while you feel stupid, and I have no ability to be with myself feeling stupid, I have a quandary.

This quandary shows up constantly in leadership.

The primary way we seek to solve this is by providing people with whatever is needed to make them have a different experience.

This is problematic, because real wisdom can only be gained by moving through an experience, and our best attempts at leadership, inside this quandary, end up denying people the completion of their own experience.

The second approach we take is to close our hearts.

If I close my heart, then I don’t have to feel empathy. I can be with you, physically, witnessing whatever you’re feeling that is causing you suffering, but I can process it all intellectually. Instead of feeling it in my heart, it exists purely at a conceptual level in my head. I ultimately remain untouched.

As you continue to do this, you get better and more practised at closing your heart, until it becomes natural and automatic. You end up untouched by empathy, and consequently, unimpactable by the world.

This allows for an efficiency of getting things done (you’re no longer interested or even capable of considering other people’s feelings), but it means that people no longer have the capacity to feel like you generally “get” them — because you can’t.

To be leaders that support the transformation of others, we have to develop the ability to simply BE with these emotional states, without doing anything to change them.

And this requires cultivating a willingness to be devastated by what you feel, both internally and empathetically.

Ironically, real strength in leadership is a function of your ability to simply sit and BE with someone as they experience whatever they are experiencing, leaving your heart open and allowing it to get bruised as you feel what they feel.

One of the best ways you can practising this ability is to start to learn which emotional states you seek to move away from.

What are the emotions that you try to “help” or “resolve” for other people. Do you try to cheer people up? Do you try to get them to move beyond their current state, back into action?

Whatever you discover provides you an opportunity to begin practising with yourself. Instead of trying to “get past” this state, can you instead simply sit with it, and allow yourself to feel it?