Empathy is one of the most important aspects of creating harmonious relationships, reducing stress, and enhancing emotional awareness -- yet it can be tricky at times. I consider myself to be quite empathic, but I 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 nonexistent.
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 or situation, or 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 their feelings or experience. Empathy is more a sense 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 Einfühlung, 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 us utilizing and experiencing the power of empathy. Three of the main ones, which are all interrelated, are as 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 and understanding about 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.
Where in your life and relationships can you see that feeling threatened, being judgmental, and experiencing fear stop you from being empathic? 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 Empathic
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 empathic:
- 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, being able to admit, own, and express our fear, insecurity, sadness, anger, jealousy, or whatever other "negative" emotions we are experiencing is one of the best ways for us to move past our defensiveness and authentically address the deeper issues of the situation. 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.
Mike Robbins is a sought-after motivational keynote speaker, coach, and the bestselling author of Focus on the Good Stuff (Wiley) and Be Yourself, Everyone Else Is Already Taken (Wiley). More info: www.Mike-Robbins.com