September 7th, 2015
Creating with Empathy
Creative projects resonate when they come from a place of genuine empathy. You recognize it when you feel it—it's the work that captivates, stirs something inside you, and makes you feel. Empathy is the force of compassion that propels us care for one another, and it's essential for human connection. We seek connections in all forms: music, paintings, books, and, yes, even social media. It fulfills two purposes: assures others they aren't alone in their human experience and provides a perspective different from their own. Empathy is the source of memorable creations because feelings are easier to recall than precise details.
So how do you pour such strong emotion into your work that others feel it too?
Have a Purpose.
If you don't care about your project, neither will anyone else. No matter what you are creating or the story you're telling, there is one fundamental purpose at it's core: to make people care. Whether it's the characters, the journey, or the message, everyone searches for a reason driving the story. As humans, we constantly seek meaning in our lives and actions. So why wouldn't we seek answers and guidance from stories and the world around us? In fact, we do it all the time.
So provide meaning!
Consider why you are creating this project. To express an experience or emotion you went through? An issue you find yourself drawn to? To explore possibilities that excite you? Also, recognize who you are creating for (the ideal person you would sit down and share it with). Is it someone directly or through a friend going through a similar experience? Who is involved or interested in the issue(s) you care about? Who shares your excitement over a particular subject?
Your purpose should be easily defined. Recite it every time you struggle with fear and procrastination! I encourage you to add a personal reason at the end as an extra reminder of your passion. It's a promise to care about this project at it's core so you never lose your way.
"I am [writing/drawing/singing/other] about [X], for people who [Y], so they may [Z]. This matters to me personally because [List Here]."
Here are a few examples:
- "I am [writing] about [anxiety and panic disorders], for people who [have anxiety/know someone with anxiety], so they may [feel less alone/help their loved ones through anxiety and panic attacks with understanding]. This matters to me personally because [I have anxiety, have had anxiety attacks, and want others to better understand it so they may help themselves/others]."
- "I am [drawing comics] about [puppies], for people who [have pets], so they may [laugh that day]. This matters to me personally because [I really love my dog]."
I never said they had to be game changers; just something that matters to you.
Create WITH, Not FROM, Feelings.
Have you ever encountered someone so furious they become a rage machine expressing excruciatingly long and non-stop vents of their feelings? But their words are so fueled by their anger, they're difficult to follow, at times incomprehensible, and numerous facts are just plain wrong?
I'm sure you can think of at least one (probably. That's what you DON'T want to do, and that's what I consider creating from your feelings. When your feelings are controlling your thoughts, such raw intensity can blindside you from creating a connection that can be reciprocated. The emotions are so overwhelming, intimate, and exclusive that it is a purely "you" story—not something another can see themselves in. That's not to say it's impossible, just harder, and likely to cause others to scoot away as if you're a stranger invading their personal space on a train.
Feelings and passion are crucial for creating good work, but your emotions shouldn't be running the show solo. Keep yourself in check (facts, tone, word choice, etc.) and consider your audience. Who are they in relation to you? Are you inciting a conversation, or shouting out loud? Be your own editor or find another to confirm your purpose is unmistakable. Whatever you are creating, you are a storyteller. The "teller" part of that word should remind you there is another involved in the creation process: the listener!
Feelings should motivate your purpose, but remain in control to ensure there is an invitation and place for your audience. If there's no room for them, they can't reciprocate your emotion and purpose. In great conversations, rapport is mutual. Your work should do the same.
Hello? Is This Really You?
Create from a place uniquely your own. By all means, you can tell the stories of others or ones entirely imagined, but if the purpose and emotion behind it aren't yours—meaning, the feelings and motivations aren't ones you authentically believe in—your creation will fall flat and fail to resonate. Trust in your story and ability to tell it.
Don't be someone you're not or tell a story you care halfheartedly about. Sometimes we resist telling the story we want because we worry it's already been done. You might reluctantly revise significant details because another insists it'll improve the work, but the changes leave you dejected and unmotivated. Before long, you're convinced no one will care at all if the project isn't finished. Why should they? Even you don't care for it anymore. Your own idea is not as dear to you as it was before.
Well, of course. You tried to make the project's purpose into something against your own passion and emotions. No matter what feedback you get from critique groups or family, your story should always be that: YOUR story. Be open to critique, of course, but if a change doesn't feel right to you...don't do it. Your creation will resonate best if it's one you personally believe in. I guarantee it!
Even if your brain is insisting you give up because it's "been done", ignore the discouragement. Sure; it is entirely possible—even likely—it's "been done". But it hasn't been done by you. What a difference you can make! No one has lived your life or is feeling as you do about this project right here, right now. Only you can create and tell this story as YOU feel it.
Don't be Scared of Fear.
"Don't fear fear." Sounds weird, right? But the truth is fear holds us back. It makes us procrastinate, avoid working on projects we truly believe in, and even hide them from ever seeing the light of day. It's a shame the creations we feel most strongly about are the ones we actively try to keep out of the hands of others! Those are often the projects with the most potential to resonate with others.
So be brave. Don't be afraid to question your fear. What is it that you are afraid of? I dare you to question your fear. Ask it, "So what?" Scared people won't enjoy it? Someone might even say it's the worst thing they've ever seen? Well... so what? Are those really the worst that could happen, and are they really that big of a deal? Stop before you say "yes" because I already have an answer for you: Absolutely not!
For a year I worked a job with a horrendous work environment where employees lowest on the totem pole were disrespected by management on a nearly daily basis. Some days it felt they didn't even see us as human. Because of the awful conditions, my coworkers and I suffered emotionally. As I neared the end of a year, things were still awful, but I'd learned to deal with it one way or another (as most did who'd stuck around). At the same time, nearly all management positions had been replaced with new people brought in to turn things around.
They expressed desire for our feedback, but with so many employees distrustful and disheartened of management from past experiences, nearly every single one of them didn't dare speak a word. At least, not completely honest ones. They were heavily toned down from reality. In this situation, I had a choice to make: I could tell them my story, experience, and feedback...or say nothing at all. If I spoke out, there could be a negative reaction or consequences, but if I said nothing, there was a strong likelihood someone new would experience what I had.
I decided another suffering as I had was the worst that could happen. So I requested to talk to them privately and told them the issue most important to me (and, yes, I admit it: I cried because I was so adamant that no one should go through what we had).
Weeks later, what do you think changed?
Nothing. The worst thing that could have happened (in my view) occurred anyway, despite my efforts. The new management hadn't listened and repeated the same mistakes with new employees. However, something was different this time around: I was there, and so were my coworkers. I was able to connect to them by sharing my story, knowing they were keeping their fears to themselves because they thought it was "just them." Where no one had been there for us, we were able to be there for new employees in their experiences and help them through these struggles.
My point here is this: sometimes you tell your story, you tell it with all the passion you can, and the worst happens anyway. But even if it happens, it's not the end. Nothing may have changed, but the story of those experiences—"my story"—had changed me, and in turn I was still able to help a few individuals as I had hoped. It hadn't resonated with the head honchos, but it reached those who needed it. Your creative project has the same power if you dare to share it. Don't hold yourself back and put your whole heart into it.
Kick fear to the curb and go tell your story!
Not Everyone Has to "Get It".
Some people won't feel it was made for them. They might listen, but shrug it off. Perhaps they even disagree. Regardless, that's completely fine. Repeat after me: "I will not worry about it!"
Sometimes the timing just isn't right.
The first time I saw the movie Lilo & Stitch, I enjoyed it, but it was simply that: an enjoyable movie. It was no doubt a good movie; just one that didn't stir any deep emotions from me. Jump forward a few years later, I decided to watch it again. Suddenly it was like I was seeing it for the first time. Before I knew it, I was bawling at the story's events. So what happened? The movie hadn't changed. I did. I'd been through new experiences, met and connected with different people, and now the movie's message struck me deeply in a way it hadn't before.
Your creation isn't for everyone. It won't suit every person at every stage of their life. Our lives and perspectives are each unique, and likewise our perspectives on the media we encounter are equally our own. It's why one song might cause me to sing my heart out and think of someone special while another rolls their eyes. It's why one book may be "the best thing ever" to me, but completely unbelievable to you. Have faith your work will resonate with the right people at the right time—that's what matters. So don't worry about the folks who think it's "just okay" because they aren't who your work is for.
You're creating for people who need it. People who are, or were, just like you and who can benefit from your purpose and passion.
From One Human Being to Another...
Creating work from your heart, full of compassion and empathy for your audience, is incredibly difficult. When you pull from yourself something so deeply personal and put it out in the world...well, the very idea of exposing ourselves this way is naturally uncomfortable for most of us (if not all). Personally, I wish it didn't have to be. If you made it all the way to the end of this post, I assume it's because you have stories or emotions within you that you long to express...and you don't just want to share them; you want them to matter to someone. You long to create something that resonates and connects with other individuals of this world.
If you have any bit of self-doubt, I want you to stop and think about that for a moment.
Isn't it incredible? Just desiring to reach out to others with your creativity already puts you half-way there to creating memorable work. Unless you've gone and hid your emotions and heart at the bottom of the ocean, you have what you need within you. All that's left is to harness that desire and create.
So, between me and you...