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Don't ask "What's wrong with them?" Ask "What happened to them?"

I recently heard Jay Shetty interview Oprah and Dr. Bruce Perry, and a key idea that really stuck with me is to not ask "What's wrong with them" but rather "What happened to them." The former creates negative judgment, while the later creates empathy. In this post, I'll share some of my own experiences on this topic.

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This school semester, I've been teaching a health course, and part of it involves healthy eating. I've come to realize how emotionally sensitive the topic of food can be for people. I remember my mother was very against me drinking celery juice for example, which caused a lot of conflict between us. Back then, I was thinking, "What's wrong with her? It's just celery!"

In the health course I'm teaching, when I showed a talk on veganism, some students reacted in a very emotional and illogical way. One student even said "I don't care if animal products are unhealthy or cruel or bad for the environment. I must eat meat." To which, I thought, "What's wrong with them?" But that question just creates judgment and negativity in my own mind, which hurts me more than anyone else. When I ask the question, "What happened to them?", then things start to make sense, and I can have more empathy for them.

In the case of my mother, she was very sick in the past, and she healed after following the advice of a specific doctor who taught her that we need to eat more "warm" foods like ginger, cinnamon, fennel, hot peppers, etc. We should limit cold foods like fruits and vegetables, and when we do eat "cold" foods, we should add in the "warm" spices to reduce their "coldness". Regardless of whether I want to debate the logic of that, the fact is, she healed from that doctor's advice, so emotionally, she is very attached to that viewpoint. That's why she's so against me drinking pure celery juice. It's not a logical debate. It's an emotional thing.

In the case of those students, I can imagine that they probably grew up (like I did) eating animal products. They have fond memories of family dinners at home or at restaurants filled with different meat dishes. They love getting milk tea with friends. They order barbeque skewers all the time. They eat eggs every day and drink a glass of milk before bed. It's not a big surprise then that they would feel emotionally attacked when presented with information that says that the innocent happiness they had in the past was somehow wrong or bad. That one rude student in particular was maybe going through a bad day that day. Or perhaps he was spoiled at home to get whatever he wants. Or perhaps he often argues with his parents that way.

Going through this mental exercise helped me have more empathy for others. It also reminded me of something that Peter Crone said: If you were them, with their exact genes and childhood and accumulated life experiences, you would be behaving exactly the same way as them. So to judge them is completely nonsensical.

The point isn't to excuse other people's bad behavior, but rather to reduce the negative emotions within yourself because those negative emotions hurt you and prevent you from acting logically and effectively. When we can approach others from a place of care and patience, only then we can have a positive influence on them.

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