Latest update: December 30th, 2013
The definition of empathy is the ability to mutually experience the thoughts, emotions, and the direct experience of others. It is commonly described as the ability to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” or “see things from another perspective.” It goes beyond sympathy, which is a feeling of care and understanding for the suffering of others. Psychologists today are studying the complex pathways of human development and pinpointing the critical role that empathic expression plays in making us into fully formed human beings.
Our amygdala is the fastest processor in the brain, and it is how we perceive information from our feelings about others. Our first and potentially strongest emotional response is sometimes one that we learned earliest in life, perhaps as young as four or five. When we begin “thinking about our thinking” and “thinking about our feeling,” we begin to teach our amygdala new responses, which allows us to move into a stronger and more mature state of connection with others.
Empathy is not agreement or approval. It is simply understanding, the intuitive sensing of another person’s underlying feelings, wants, and psychological dynamics, i.e., “What would I be feeling if I were him or her?”
Empathy is the expression of four basic skills: Pay Attention, Inquire, Dig Down, and Double Check.
Paying Attention is like a spotlight, illuminating its object by consciously choosing to give your attention over to someone for a time, your spouse for example, to listen without judgment and stay focused on the other’s experience, rather than the circumstances or your beliefs.
Inquire is asking open-ended questions to the other party.
Dig Down is getting deeper into the softer feelings of hurt, fear, or shame that are underneath the other person’s anger.
Double Check is making sure that the message was received. Otherwise, the other party will continue to broadcast the message louder until s/he feels heard.
If empathy is one of the most important aspects of creating harmonious relationships, reducing stress, and enhancing emotional awareness, why is it sometimes so hard to do? Why can it be easy to feel empathy towards some people but hard to empathize with others, especially those we don’t like or with whom we disagree? Why do we have trouble empathizing with ourselves at times? Sometimes, in particular situations, our natural ability and desire to empathize can be diminished.
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.
- 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.
- Being Judgmental: When we are judgmental, we decide that we’re “right” and someone else is “wrong.” Doing this hurts us and others, cuts us off from those around us, and doesn’t allow us to see alternative options and possibilities. We live in a culture that is obsessed with and passionate about being judgmental. Many of us 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 empathic.
About the Author: Sarah Kahan, LMSW is the Coordinator of the Simcha Program @ OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services. Individuals interested in the program should please contact OHEL at 1(800) 603-OHEL. Additionally, Sarah has a private practice in Flatbush. She provides psychotherapy to individuals, couples, adolescents and their parents. She can be reached at 347-764-9333 Sarah_kahan@ohelfamily.org
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