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.
For a hands-on workbook to learn to empathize, identify when we slip into using feeling stoppers, and how to respond empathetically, check out our online store.
What Is Empathy?
In 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.
Go deeper →→→ The Three Kinds of Empathy: Emotional, Cognitive, Compassionate
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). Or sometimes the emotion triggers unresolved issues in their own lives so they quickly minimize the person's experience.
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.
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.
An 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.
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.
Dive deeper into the skill of empathy with our new workbook: Real Empathy, Real Solutions: 4 Keys to Unlocking the Power of Empathy. You'll learn about feelings stoppers and how they interfere with giving compassion and empathy; you'll get practice with interactive worksheets and infographics to break down the tool easily.
How will you know when you're doing 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!
Related reading: "Empathy vs Sympathy: What's the Difference?" (Includes a more in-depth understanding of empathy and an accompanying infographic for easy reference.)
To learn more about how to develop emotional literacy, empathy for yourself and others as well as how to set effective boundaries in your life, try our online course today. You'll be glad you did!