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Being Careful with Empathy

Updated: Jun 19



Being Careful with Empathy

“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another” - Anonymous


Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another - Oxford Dictionary


So much is written in the media these days about empathy. We find reference to it everywhere: politics, entertainment, social media, self-help, relationships, parenting, delivery of public and private sector services… the list goes on.


We both have been introduced to it in our professional lives in western medicine, and here, as in all these other situations, it is seen as something to aspire to.


We all are regularly told by our employers, employees, customers, recognised experts, advertising companies and other media sources that fostering empathy with others will enhance our relationships, make us better communicators and ultimately improve things for all concerned.


But what does it really mean to be empathic?


When we first began teaching about empathy and compassion, we found one person’s understanding of each term differed greatly from the next. Indeed dictionary definitions do not seem to be able to separate the two.


When we are encouraged to foster empathy, we are asked to step into the other person’s shoes. We are encouraged to view the situation through their eyes and try to feel that they are feeling. In effect, we are sitting in that person’s pain. When we do this, we alter our own body chemistry to match how it would be if we ourselves were in that particular situation. A painful or difficult situation, if imagined in this way, will result in a rise in our own stress hormones. This is not good for us, especially when it happens on a regular basis.


Additionally, how do we know that we are feeling what the other person is feeling? We are working from our own frame of reference and our own unique model of the world. This is developed from our parenting, childhood and life experiences and is influenced by our genetic make-up. It is the lens through which we see life and it colours everything, including how we feel and respond to any situation. How we would feel is, in fact, not how someone else might feel at all.


We can never know how someone else is feeling. We can only imagine how we would feel in that situation based on our own experiences and that is our pain not theirs. When we feel that we are doing as we have been encouraged to do and feeling, therefore identifying with someone’s distress, our ability to act in the most beneficial way for that person can become contaminated by what is happening emotionally for us.


When someone is upset, we can do as described above and identify with and feel their discomfort, or we can accept that the discomfort is not ours and look towards an alternative approach.


We can begin by engaging our powers of observation. We can say:

“I can see that this is difficult for you” or “I see that you are upset by this.”


When we make observations like this, we are not trespassing on the pain or emotion of the other person, we are giving them a voice. The interaction becomes more about them and less about us.


We can then follow up with the question:

“How can I help” or better still, “What do you need?”


We would describe this response as compassionate rather than empathic. As we stated above dictionary definitions do not seem to be able to separate the two.


The compassionate approach allows the person to feel that they have been heard and gives them permission to state their own needs. They can do this honestly without the fear that we will be upset by their response. It discourages us from making assumptions based on our own experiences and allows us to really listen. This approach also is far less likely to result in our own energy becoming depleted which renders us much more useful in the situation and leaves us with more energy for others. This is resilience.


We have noticed a trend, in social media particularly, for people to want to identify as an empath. We appreciate that those who are drawn towards vocations which involve the helping and healing of those in distress may be a self-selected group who feel the distress of others deeply. We both identify with this phenomenon.


The problem with wearing empath as a label is that we give it the power to control what and how much we feel. We fall victim to it in such a way that we appear not to be able to control how much pain and distress we absorb from others. We say that it is who we are and therefore we cannot help it. Empathy is a strategy that we can either choose to employ or not.


We can choose!


When we feel ourselves wanting to engage in empathic behaviour, we can simply observe ourselves. We can press pause, and we can ask ourselves “is this a situation where empathy would be the best approach for everyone?


We can then choose whether we want to proceed in that way. Alternatively, we can choose the above compassionate response if it feels right. What matters is not which approach or response we choose, but that we have made the choice consciously rather than simply employing our automatic ‘go to’ behaviour.


For a deep dive into self-awareness and over 60 tools and techniques to help improve your mental wellbeing, reduce anxiety and allow you to take control of your life, our book ‘How to Rise – A Complete Resilience Manual’ from Sheldon Press is now available.

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