Empathy differs from sympathy. Sympathy reflects an understanding of another person’s situation- but viewed through your own eyes. In contrast, empathy is what you feel when you can step outside of yourself and enter the internal world of another person. You experience the other’s emotions and conflict without abandoning or losing your own perspective. It involves being able “to see with the eyes of another, to hear with the ears of another, to feel with the heart of another” (Alfred Adler).
Two people have a disagreement. They lash out or walk away from the other. It is possible that due to each of their life experiences, they learned that anger can do harm, cause a dissolution of a relationship, become an attack upon their views, or create some perceived threat of which they are not fully aware. With empathy they would STOP, and try to understand and experience the other’s position. A baby cries, the caregiver is upset and angry the child can’t stop the screaming and crying. Stop! Imagine what it is like to be in the baby’s position, who is feeling emotions or discomfort they cannot describe.
This is empathy.
Research has shown that individuals have what are described as “mirror neurons”. When we witness or hear another’s experience, these mirror neurons trigger memories in the brain of the listener. This may stimulate emotional experiences connected to those memories. If the memories are negative we may respond in anger and fear consistent with our own experience with respect to what we observe in the other’s behaviour. At the same time, if we can suspend our own experiences, and try to see it through the lens of another person, then these neurons contribute to the deepening of an empathic understanding of individuals.
Mirroring helps dissolve the barrier between self and others. It is the way nature facilitates caring about other people. One could ask why we experience tears when someone is kind to us? Why do we feel at peace when someone understands us? Why that simple “are you ok” can move us so? It is because empathy validates and lends to a deeper understanding of another’s experience.
Empathy can be used when we seek to understand someone better, argue unproductively, have difficulty connecting emotionally to another, or when trying to calm our temper and manage our own emotions. A loved one who is experiencing depression, anger or any conflicted emotion shows greater healing when levels of understanding are deeper through empathy. Being told to ‘get over it’, or lashing out, by a loved one, does not reveal empathic understanding.
Think of an upset child, partner, stranger, anyone for that matter. Instead of responding in anger, use those mirror neurons that generate empathy. What is happening with that person in this moment of time? Don’t judge, just imagine. Are they frightened, did they receive bad news, are they feeling unwell, stressed, did their partner break up with them, etc.?
Are their views of life or behaviour different from yours? Do not become threatened by the differences, it does not mean either of you are right or wrong. Think of ways you are similar to that person beneath the surface differences. Empathy does not mean letting them walk all over you. Rather, Empathy gives you a stronger and wiser base for resolving conflict. You can bridge differences more effectively and with less destructiveness.
Empathy allows us to be mindful of our commonality and connection with fellow humans, rather than emphasizing the differences between yourself and others. Try to understand or imagine the feelings and attitudes of others by reflecting who he or she is and the forces and influences and choices that have shaped their life. Even if you do not know that person, just imagine.
The more one practices empathy, the more it is reinforced to become a natural response. While a person’s empathy can be attributed to genetic factors, research shows us that empathy can also be taught and learned.
The result in not applying empathy is personal conflict, communication breakdown and the development of adversarial attitudes – even hatred – toward those who differ from ourselves. Without empathy we exist inside a self centred world, that can breed emotional isolation and disconnection.
Instead seek to understand first before ensuring you are understood. Ask “How are you doing…What is that like for you?”
People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care. (President Theodore Roosevelt).