Have you ever had someone acknowledge and reflect back to you what you're feeling so perfectly that it made you tear up?
Has someone ever taken the time to sit with you quietly in your grief and just hold your hand?
Have you ever told someone your story, shared your pain, or acknowledged your shame, and they teared up in response to the powerful feelings you were expressing?
If so, this is the essence of empathy.
Empathy is the ability to feel what others are feeling. It is the capacity to identify so intimately with the emotions of another that it's like being inside the other person's skin. But beyond sharing the feelings of another, it is the willingness to imagine how the other person is impacted by their emotions.
It is the conscious choice to focus on the other person's state of mind before your own. Empathy is often the first step toward taking compassionate action for someone.
There are two types of empathy which can occur separately or together. The first is affective empathy which refers to the feelings we feel when we observe or sense another person's emotions. For example, if you see someone crying, you will feel sad or teary yourself.
The second type of empathy is cognitive empathy. This is the ability to identity and understand the emotions of someone else. You are able to see a situation from their perspective and understand their emotions or reactions.
What is empathy and how does it differ from sympathy?
Both empathy and sympathy are grounded in compassion and the shared commonality of feelings and experiences. Sympathy is a feeling of care and concern for someone and the sincere desire to see that person feel better or happier. Sympathy goes beyond just pity for someone's plight to show authentic concern for their well-being.
However, sympathy, unlike empathy, does not involve a shared perspective or shared emotions. Empathy is more focused on personally identifying with or projecting oneself into another’s situation.
- You might feel sympathy for someone who just lost their job, but if you never lost a job, it's hard to feel empathy.
- You might feel sympathy for someone who recently divorced, but it's hard to empathize because it feels too uncomfortable to put yourself in their shoes.
- You might feel sympathy for someone who just lost money in the stock market because you did as well, but your sympathy is grounded more in your own feelings of frustration rather than the other person's.
To be able to empathize, it takes some imagination, effort, and often a similar experience to put yourself in another's shoes. Empathy involves some level of willingness to extend yourself into another person's emotional space and sit with them there, even if it's uncomfortable. It is a way of saying, “I understand you because I am you, and I am willing to share your pain.”
For many reasons, empathy is harder to accomplish than sympathy. You not only have to really hear the other person without judgement, but also you must acknowledge to yourself and the other person the similar feelings you share as the listener. This intimate connection and mutual sharing builds bridges that create trust and understanding.
The connection created by empathy is healing and positive for both people, even if nothing is resolved or the pain remains. The goal of empathy isn't to race to a solution or answer, although at a later time it may be appropriate to help the other person uncover a solution. The goal is to ease the other's aloneness and isolation in their plight.
For some, like highly sensitive people and empaths, feeling empathy is natural and automatic. High sensitivity is a natural trait occurring in 15-20% of the population, in both men and women. One of the most common characteristics of sensitives is the ability to quickly recognize and experience the feelings of others. Many empaths suggest they can feel the feelings of someone close to them even if they aren't in the same location.
Those who are not highly sensitive (which is the vast majority of people) may need to hone their empathy skills. Most people have some natural empathy as it does play a role in our evolutionary history and can be traced to the mirror neurons in our brains. However, you can enhance your natural empathic abilities with some practice.
The question is — why would you want to do that? Why is important to refine your ability to show empathy?
The Benefits of Empathy
Empathy is a primary component in emotional intelligence and the foundation of living an honorable and meaningful life. Humans are social creatures, and the key ingredient of all successful relationships is understanding the needs and emotions of others. Here are some other compelling reasons to practice empathy:*
- Empathy fosters feelings of pleasure and satisfaction.
- Empathy expands your perceptions.
- Empathy connects and transforms your relationships and removes the blocks to action.
- Empathy makes you more willing to help others even if it goes against your own self-interests.
- Empathy reduces prejudice and racism and fosters understanding.
- Empathy boosts intimacy and satisfaction in your love relationship.
- Empathy helps in conflict resolution.
- Empathy reduces bullying and aggression in kids.
- Empathy promotes heroic and selfless acts.
- Empathy balances inequality and social disparity.
- Empathy from managers creates happier, more satisfied employees.
- Empath from doctors promotes better health and emotional well-being in patients.
Empathy is a practice that will enrich your life and expand your experience of the world around you. By stepping outside of the cocoon of your own existence, problems, and emotions, you are connecting to a deeper, more soul-satisfying level of engagement and awareness.
If empathy doesn't come naturally to you, or if you've cut yourself off from empathy because you fear it will be too painful, you can learn to cultivate more empathy in your daily experiences with a little practice and effort.
How to Cultivate Empathy
Simply through awareness of the power of empathy and making a shift in your mindset, you'll begin to notice yourself becoming more empathic. If you are someone with the slightest interest in personal growth, developing empathy is lesson 101 in your curriculum.
In order to expand as a person, you must be able to embrace the wide variety of life experiences — whether you experience them yourself or put yourself in the shoes of someone else experiencing them. We can't grow if we stay isolated in the small boxes of our own lives.
Here are some ways you can begin to develop more empathy:
- When you are with another person, try to focus your attention outwards to understand their behaviors, moods, or expressions. Be fully present and listen intently when they speak rather than being stuck inside your own head or preparing your response.
- Don't be too quick to offer solutions or minimize the situation or their pain. Show with your eye contact, expressions and body language that you “get” what is going on with them.
- Reflect back to the other person what you are hearing them say. Allow them to feel deeply heard. This can't be a rote repetition of their words, but a sincere reflection of the feelings behind the words that were spoken.
- Physically mirror the other person in their body language if you can do it without it looking weird. We do this unconsciously with people we like, so try to do it intentionally to show connection.
- Actively imagine that you are this person and that their challenge or pain is yours. Allow yourself to feel the feelings of sadness, anger, regret, fear, pain, shame, or guilt that they are feeling. It is only through feeling what others feel that we can truly empathize with them.
- Extend yourself to talk more with people of different cultures, socio-economic backgrounds, faiths, or political persuasions. Spend time outside of your “tribe” so you can better understand where others are coming from and why they are the people they are.
- Challenge your assumptions about others and step back from your personal prejudices. It's hard to be empathetic when you rely on stereotypes that you can't relate to. Step out of your comfort zone and look for opportunities to challenge your entrenched beliefs and opinions.
Having sympathy for another is an act of kindness and compassion. Showing empathy for another is an act of service. With empathy, you extend yourself to meet another where they are and stop for a while to sit with them in their suffering. Both are necessary for your personal evolution, but empathy has the power to transform and elevate us while making the world a better place.