What is Empathy?
Carl Rogers, the Humanistic psychologist that founded Person-Centered Therapy, defined empathy as being able to actually share in the experience of another as if it were your own, but without losing yourself in the mix. If you break the word down into its separate parts (em = into and pathy = feelings), the word literally translates to "into feelings."
Empathy is, therefore, stepping into the feelings of the person you're listening to AND being able to feel them as if they were yours. This means suspending all judgments, eliminating bias, and not filtering their experiences through your lens of how you see the world. It can be hard to understand why your child is melting down over which cup they use, why or your partner is so agitated about being late to an event that you don't think is important. But when you consider your child's experience in their own life of being told what to do all day long, it is easier to understand his or her desire for control. And when you consider your partner's experience of social anxiety, it makes sense that showing up late could be a miserable experience. What matters is that you understand the other person's experience of that event. In doing so, you meet that individual's need for validation.
People often confuse sympathy with empathy. Sympathy (sym = same) is feeling compassion or sadness for a person or having the same feelings as a person. Sympathy absolutely has its place in relationships, but it does not share in a person's experience and it can impose judgments and feelings upon a situation that may not have been present before. The adorable animation above further explains the difference. Essentially, we are sympathetic to someone who is struggling when we say, "Oh, that's too bad." Someone who has compassion but doesn't necessarily share the other person's perspective or emotions is sympathetic.
We are empathetic when we tell someone, "I understand what you're dealing with, and I've been there too." A genuine empathetic response cultivates an emotional connection and probably helps someone feel more validated than does a sympathetic response.
Why Do We Need Empathy?
As Dr. Helen Riess explains in her TEDxTalk on the power of empathy, empathy matters in every aspect of our lives. Doctors need to empathize with their patients for better recovery rates and immune system function, teachers must possess empathy to keep their students engaged, and marriages without empathy tend to fall apart.
As this infographic explains, being a more empathetic person can help strengthen our relationships and make us feel more connected to others. Practicing empathy can also lower stress and reduce pain. The next time your loved one comes to you with a problem, try to express empathy and see things from their perspective. You might be surprised by how much of a difference it can make.
Please contact me if you would like to learn how to become a more empathetic person in your daily life.