Dumb Little Man

How To Develop Empathy By Understanding Subjective Hardship

Most people understand what hardship is but not a lot of people know how to develop empathy. When we think about someone who undergoes hardship, we often think about those who are impoverished, disabled or marginalized in some way. What we fail to think about is subjective hardship.

What is subjective hardship?

I define subjective hardship as the hardship that someone internalizes. Often, we cannot see these hardships. But, just because we cannot see them, does not mean that they are not real. Just because someone might seem fine on the outside, does not mean that person is not having real pain on the inside.

If a child from a high-income household expects hundreds of presents each year, and one year that child receives less than expected, there is a good chance that child will be undergoing subjective hardship.

Now, you might be thinking that this spoiled kid is not undergoing any hardship and that’s exactly the problem. The number of people who take their lives has increased in recent years. High schools and colleges are seeing a major increase in mental health issues across young people who are 14 to 24 years old.

Many of the reasons that these numbers are increasing revolve around how we conceptualize hardship. We have to reframe how we think about hardship to better understand what factors are leading to the increase in mental health service use.

Developing empathy for hardship

active listening

One of the best ways to understand how people conceptualize subjective hardship is to listen. Active listening is the key. Simply listening to someone who is going through some form of hardship, without judgment, could make all the difference. When we fail to account for subjective hardship, we forget that we are human.

Humans live and die by the expectations they create for their society, community, and families. If all of a sudden, we change someone’s paradigm, that person is likely to struggle with his or her mental and physical health. On the outside, that person may own a fancy house and car, but, on the inside, that person could be struggling with depression, anxiety, and stress.

Break down the barriers through vulnerability

The easiest way to break down a barrier is to acknowledge. If someone you know seems a little off, say something.

There are so many reasons why we experience pain in life. However, because we feel like no one will be able to understand the pain and what we are going through, we often hide them.That attitude is the barrier that we need to break down. Other people will only be able to understand you if you let them in.

Showing vulnerability is the easiest way to get another person to open up to you. If I tell you about how my life is going and the struggles that I face, you will be more likely to open up to me. Showing vulnerability is showing strength as it takes strength to admit when something is wrong.

If we can break down the barriers and realize that people are just people, then we might be able to save some lives.


Hardship is both objective and subjective.

There are plenty of data on objective hardship which enable us to know exactly how to combat it. What we know less about and what we need to learn more about is subjective hardship.

No one has a perfect life. Because we place such a high value on money and material possessions, we often forget how important personal relationships, health, and moods are. No one deserves constant stress, anxiety or sadness. It is the right time that we step up and show empathy for others.

The simplest way to show empathy is to listen to someone’s problems. Ask about what’s going on in their lives. Try kindness and aim to develop trust.

There is a good chance that person will return the favor in the future. If we can break down our barriers, we can develop relationships across socioeconomic boundaries. Be just a little better than you were yesterday and see what happens.


Exit mobile version