What Is Empathy and Why Is It Important?

By Jennifer A. Williams May 15, 2017

Have you ever had one of those days when you just needed someone to talk to, someone to really get how you were feeling? Have you ever felt totally misunderstood by your spouse or a friend? Well, if you have, you were more than likely needing a dose of empathy. 

Feeling heard and understood is a human need. Everyone needs to feel understood. Empathy helps us get in touch with our feelings and gives us an emotional understanding of ourselves and others.

Feeling understood is not only a basic human need but it is also how we connect, help, and support one another. If we can’t recognize someone in pain, how can we support them? If we are unable to accept and empathize with our own emotions, it is difficult to be present to people around us. And for this reason, empathy is crucial for our interconnectivity.

The good news is that like other emotional intelligence (or EQ) skills, empathy can be learned and practiced. Unlike IQ or the genes you inherited from your parents, we can apply ourselves and develop a greater understanding and know-how in relating to our own and others' feelings.

What Is Empathy?

Empathy builds bridges of understandingIn the book, "Born for Love," authors Maia Szalavitz and Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD describe empathy this way: "The essence of empathy is the ability to stand in another's shoes, to feel what it's like there. Your primary feelings are more related to the other person's situation than your own."

This quote is very key. If we are filled with our own reactions or pain, it is nearly impossible to see or feel what it’s like from another’s experience because their emotions will set off a chain reaction of our own unresolved emotions. So one of the first keys of empathy is to be aware of our own emotions. It is only with this awareness that we can be present to another.

In the article, "Brene Brown on Empathy vs Sympathy," by Psychology Today, the four qualities of empathy are outlined as:

1) to be able to see the world as others see it
2) to be nonjudgmental
3) to understand another's feelings
4) to communicate your understanding of that person's feelings

These four components are present when one is being empathetic. When we can be present to another, these elements will be active. However, these qualities each require us to be peaceful within ourselves first.

Empathy vs Sympathy

Many people think they’re being empathetic when they’re being sympathetic (because they feel sorry for the person) or asserting a feeling stopper (because they don’t know how to respond or relate to the feelings of the other person).

These critical components are not as easy as they would seem. Our own past experiences can interfere with connecting to another person. Once an emotion is triggered, it can be difficult to show empathy or be present in a genuine way.

Empathy builds a bridge of understandingAn important goal in our relationships is to connect. Empathy creates connection while sympathy creates separation and disconnection. With empathy, there is a resonance between people, a bridge of understanding is built between them that strengthens trust and connection. However, with sympathy, there is
a fixation on one person's experience rather than understanding and connection.

A great depiction of the primary differences between empathy and sympathy are cleverly illustrated in "7 Intricate Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy" by LifeHack. It's often helpful to see a concept visually.

Don't Take Responsibility for Other's Emotions

Another obstacle of expressing authentic empathy is the tendency to believe that we’re responsible for making other people feel better, especially those we love. Imagine if everyone else’s emotions were our responsibility—yikes, we’d be so overwhelmed! No wonder our first knee-jerk reaction sometimes is to try to make others feel better.

Empathy doesn't ask us to take responsibility for someone else’s feelings. Empathy is the ability to truly be present. It's the ability to hold a safe space for others to feel their own emotions completely and to be able to understand their experience. Empathy Is one of the most vital of emotional fitness skills. 

How will you know when you're dong a good job of empathizing? It's simple. You'll notice the other person's emotion softening and you'll sense a feeling of connection between you.

Develop emotional well being  and get your emotions in shape!  To learn more about how to develop empathy for yourself and others, try our online course today.

 

Posted in Interpersonal Skills, Mindfulness, Perspective, and Brain Fitness, Emotional Fitness