Empathy is one of the most important elements in creating harmonious relationships, reducing stress, and enhancing emotional connection—yet it can be tricky at times. I consider myself to be quite empathetic, but notice that with certain people (especially those I don’t like or agree with, and also with myself at times) and in particular situations, my natural ability and desire to empathize can be diminished or almost non-existent.
I also notice that when I feel empathy for others and for myself, I feel a sense of peace, connection, and perspective that I like. And when there is an absence of empathy in a particular relationship, situation, or in how I’m relating to myself, I often experience stress, disconnection, and negativity. Can you relate?
What Is Empathy?
Empathy is not sympathy. When we’re sympathetic, we often pity someone else but maintain our distance (physically, mentally, and emotionally) from his or her feelings or experience. Empathy is feeling that we can truly understand, relate to, or imagine the depth of another person’s emotional state or situation. It implies feeling with a person, rather than feeling sorry for a person. And in some cases, that “person” is actually us.
Empathy is a translation of the German term einfuhlung, meaning “to feel as one with.” It implies sharing the load or “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes” in order to understand that person’s perspective.
What Stops Us from Empathizing?
There are a number of things that get in the way of our utilizing and experiencing the power of empathy. Three of the main reasons, which are all interrelated, follows.
Feeling threatened: When we feel threatened by another person or a particular situation, it’s often hard to empathize. This makes perfect sense from a survival standpoint (i.e., if someone is trying to hurt us, we want to protect ourselves, rather than have compassion or understanding for where they’re coming from). However, we often feel threatened based on our own fears, projections, and past experiences—not by what is actually happening in the moment or in a particular relationship or situation. Whether the threat is real or imagined, when we feel threatened in any way, it often shuts down our ability to experience empathy.
Being judgmental: Judgments are a part of life; we all must make lots of judgments and decisions on a daily basis (what to wear, what to eat, where to sit, what to watch/listen to/read, what to say, and on and on). Making value judgments (the relative placement of our discernment) is essential to living a healthy life. However, being judgmental is a totally different game. When we’re judgmental, we decide that we’re “right” and someone else is “wrong.” Doing this hurts others and us, and cuts us off from those around us; it doesn’t allow us to see alternative options and possibilities. We live in a culture that is obsessed with and passionate about being judgmental. And many of us, myself included, are highly trained in this destructive and damaging “art.” When we’re being judgmental about another person, group of people, or situation, we significantly diminish our capacity to be empathetic.
Fear: The root of all this is our fear. Feeling threatened is all about fear. Being judgmental is all about fear. And not feeling, experiencing, or expressing empathy is also all about fear. There’s nothing inherently wrong with fear; it’s a natural human emotion—which, in fact, has many positive aspects to it, if we’re willing to admit it, own it, express it, and move through it. Fear saves our lives and keeps us out of trouble all the time. However, the issue with fear is our denial of it, our secret obsession with it, and our refusal to take responsibility for it. We deem things, people, or situations to be “scary”; in truth, there is nothing in life that is inherently “scary.” There are lots of things, people, and situations that cause fear in us; however, we make it about “them,” instead of owning the fact that the fear comes from within us. When we allow ourselves to be motivated by fear—which often leads to our defending ourselves against “threats,” being judgmental, and more—it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to access the power of empathy.
Where in your life and relationships can you see that your feeling threatened, being judgmental, and experiencing fear stop you from being empathetic? The more willing you are to look at this, acknowledge it, own it, and take responsibility for it (with compassion for yourself), the more able you’ll be to expand your capacity for empathy.
How to Become More Empathetic
There are many things we can do and practice to increase our ability to feel, experience, and express empathy for others, situations, and ourselves. Becoming more empathetic is one of the best ways we can enhance our relationships, reduce our stress level, and feel good about ourselves and our lives in an authentic way.
Here are a few things you can do and think about to become more empathetic:
1. Be real about how you feel: When we’re willing to get real about how we truly feel and have the courage to be vulnerable about it with ourselves and others, we can so often liberate ourselves from the negativity, projections, and judgments that mask what’s really going on. When we’re in a conflict with another person or dealing with someone or something that’s challenging for us, one of the best ways for us to move past our defensiveness and authentically address the deeper issues of the situation is by being able to admit, own, and express our fear, insecurity, sadness, anger, jealousy, or whatever other negative emotions we are experiencing. Doing this allows us to access empathy for ourselves, the other person or people involved, and even the circumstances of the conflict or challenge itself.
2. Imagine what it’s like for them: While it can sometimes be difficult for us to understand another person’s perspective or situation (because we may not agree with them, haven’t been through what they’ve been through, or don’t really want to see it through their eyes), being able to imagine what it must be like for them is an essential aspect of empathy. This is not about condoning inappropriate behavior or justifying other people’s actions; however I do believe deep in my heart that no one does or says things that are hurtful to us if they aren’t already feeling a real sense of pain themselves and/or if they haven’t been hurt in many ways in their own life. Whatever the situation is, the more willing we are to imagine what it’s like for them, the more compassion, understanding, and empathy we’ll be able to experience.
3. Forgive others and ourselves: Forgiveness is one of the most important things we can do in life to heal ourselves, let go of negativity, and live a life of peace and fulfillment. Forgiveness has to first start with us. I believe that all judgment is self-judgment. When we forgive ourselves, we create the conditions and perspective to forgive others. Forgiveness is one of the many important aspects of life that is often easier said than done. It is something we need to learn about and practice all the time. Sadly, we aren’t often taught how to forgive, encouraged to do it in genuine way, or in most cases, raised with very good models or examples of how to forgive. One of the best books you can read on this subject is called Forgive for Good, written by my friend and mentor Dr. Fred Luskin, one of the world’s leading experts and teachers about the power of forgiveness. This book gives you practical and tangible techniques you can use to forgive anyone and anything. The more willing we are to forgive ourselves and others (and continue to practice this in an ongoing way), the more able we’ll be to empathize authentically.
Originally published on Intent