One of the most insidious barriers to getting hard things done, part 4: overcoming them

December 14, 2012 by Joshua
in Awareness, Blog, Evolutionary Psychology, Nature

[This post is part of a series on empathy gaps. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Now we are familiar with empathy gaps — that when you feel one emotion you generally can’t conceive of your motivations when feeling a different emotion. We get how insidious they can be in keeping us from improving our lives.

What do we do about them? How do we shield ourselves from them undermining our efforts?

I haven’t found research on effective techniques (please contact me if you know of any) in avoiding, overcoming, or developing resilience to empathy gaps. I only have my understanding of them and my experience. After you get used to identifying and overcoming empathy gaps you’ll start to develop techniques too. I hope my experience helps you avoid some mistakes.



As always, I recommend starting with awareness.

Expect this effect. Expect to feel different emotions as your environment and beliefs change. Learn to foresee these changes.

When you’re in one environment planning to act in another, try to imagine the other — what will affect you, who will be there, the temperature, time constraints, the pace of events, … whatever will change and be relevant to your planned behavior. Are you in a calm environment now planning what to do in the middle of a hectic day tomorrow? Imagine yourself in the new environment. How will you keep cool? Plan accordingly.

Or maybe you’re in a hectic environment now planning for a calm one. How will you motivate yourself and keep your energy up?

Awareness of others

Remember that other people may feel different emotions than you do. Even in the same environment, different beliefs may lead others to perceive the same things differently than you expect.

Be aware of empathy gaps between you and other people. Ask them questions of how they feel, how the situation looks to them, and so on. Don’t assume they feel or see the same as you.


Build experience feeling empathy gaps and overcoming them.

For me, running marathons gave me great experience overcoming empathy gaps because you have to overcome “the wall” all the time. “Walls” come in many forms. As you increase distance, with hills, with summer heat, with other parts of life encroaching, and so on. You have to overcome each of these challenges.

My burpee regiment also forces me to overcome empathy gaps. Since I do them every day, I have to do them in the face of every emotion and environment my life brings me in the morning and evening — being tired, late, busy, drunk, angry, etc. Now when I feel those emotions discouraging or distracting me, I know how I’ve overcome those problems successfully before.

What is your equivalent? You’ve almost certainly overcome empathy gaps, maybe even done an activity like a sport, learning an instrument, etc that taught you to overcome empathy gaps.

When you sense you’re experiencing an empathy gap, notice how it affects you and what works in bridging it. You’ve overcome empathy gaps in the past. What worked then?

Learn from others

You aren’t in this alone. Everyone faces empathy gaps. How do they get over theirs? What can you learn from their experience? From their mistakes?

Change your environment

Since different environments provoke different emotions, changing your environment can help overcome empathy gaps if you do so wisely.

The classic example of changing your environment to change your emotions is to move food away from you if you don’t want to eat it. Having it near you provokes feelings of craving.

Another example is to avoid hanging out with friends that don’t improve your life. If you want to quit smoking, don’t hang out with smokers. If you don’t want to get angry, hang out with supportive, non-judgmental people.

Change your beliefs

Your environment doesn’t affect your emotional system directly. It affects it through your perceptions as influenced by your beliefs. Sometimes you can’t change your environment or don’t want to. Changing your beliefs will change how something in your environment will affect you.

For me, for example, learning how “food” companies like Kraft, Pepperidge Farm, Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola, Tropicana, and other industrial “food” corporations process food has made their products unappetizing to me. I see them differently than I used to. You can put them in front of me and I don’t want them.

Many people have similar experiences learning about factory farming and meat.

Back to awareness

To close off, I want to return to awareness. Knowing how empathy gaps work, that they make sense given the human emotional system, and how a given one is acting on you enables you to look at your situation from an outside perspective, to some extent letting you escape the effect.

You’ll notice this strongly with others, especially when you plan with someone else, then implement in a different environment. If both of you experience and empathy gap buy your awareness and experience lets you transcend yours, you will be able to see how the effect acts on someone else — an eye-opening experience that will help you manage how empathy gaps affect you.

You’ll also learn a great skill in motivating others past where others can’t. Eventually you’ll be able to motivate yourself beyond where most others can, and feel more calm and comfortable in the process.

Tomorrow I’ll describe some examples.

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1 response to “One of the most insidious barriers to getting hard things done, part 4: overcoming them

  1. Pingback: Empathy Gaps — one of the most insidious barriers to getting hard things done » Joshua Spodek

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