Do you have empathy for others? No, it’s not when you feel “sorry” for the person begging on the side of the road. That’s sympathy. Empathy, on the other hand, is defined as: “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
It goes beyond feeling bad for someone who’s poor. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in his place and experience their emotions.
Researchers distinguishes between two types of empathy:
- Affective empathy relates to the sensations and feelings in response to another’s emotions. For example, if your husband is stressed, you pick up on this stress and feel it yourself. This usually happens instinctively – you experience the other person’s emotion with them.
- Cognitive empathy is a more like a skill: it is the ability to accurately understand and have knowledge about someone else feels. It is the ability to notice what someone is experiencing or feeling, and having the ability to understand it.
How to develop your empathy
- Pay attention to changes in someone’s response to things.
- Pay attention to facial expressions or body language.
- Watch for changes in tone or speech.
- Put aside your views and try to understand where the person is coming from.
- Be silent when someone speaks, pay attention to them and try to understand their point of view.
How empathy heals
It connects people
Think about it: when you empathise with someone or someone empathises with you, your sense of identity is connected. Knowing that someone can understand how you feel will help you feel less alone and more connected to someone, which is something all of us need.
It helps build trust
It’s hard to feel someone’s pain or sadness with them. When someone is willing to feel your pain with you, this shows how much they care for you, and builds trust in them.
It helps develop inner strength
Biologically, we’re wired to bond with one another. The society we live in today, though, does not always cultivate this sense of deep connection and shared experiences. Every time you connect with someone else in their emotional experience, you are building your own inner strength to experience difficult emotions.
‘Suffering with others’ bonds us, creates trust, opportunity for community, healing and change. However, if you are always opening yourself up to the experiences of others, you could become emotionally drained. Negative empathy can cause an imbalance between how much you give in relationships emotionally and how much you’re receiving. It also exhausts you as sharing someone’s negative feelings can be overwhelming.
Finding the balance
- Label emotions
One of the best ways to process an emotion is to label it. By labelling someone else’s emotion, you’re stating that they feel a certain way and not you. In this way, you can still feel empathy towards how they’re feeling, but you won’t immerse yourself in the way they feel as you’ve created a barrier.
- Turn your attention to the positive
From bawling over someone’s pain because they’ve lost a loved one, to watching a sad advert, empathy triggers are everywhere. You might not be able to block out other people’s negative emotions, but with some positivity, you can create spaces for other emotions like happiness. If you’re overwhelmed by someone else’s uncomfortable feelings, bring yourself back to positive aspects of your life; remind yourself that you’re in control; go for a walk. Physical activity is a great way to restore your body’s equilibrium and lift your spirits.