What is empathy?
In a very simple way, empathy means feeling with, instead of feeling for. It means feeling the same emotion that another person feels instead of just feeling bad for them.
You don’t need to experience the same thing as someone to have empathy for them. We all have felt all the emotions before, and we need to connect to them for empathy. If someone tells me they are scared of cars because they were in a car accident, I can feel empathy even if I've never been in an accident. I know what fear feels like, so I can connect to fear and understand that the other person feels that about cars. Now I can respond to them in a way that is empathic.
You also don’t need to be good at recognizing people’s nonverbal signs of emotion. You can access empathy even when someone tells you directly about how they are feeling and why.
Empathy is an action word. It is something we actively choose when we want to connect on an emotional level with someone else.
Why is empathy important?
- It helps us with our own emotional regulation
- It expands our point of view and allows us to be open to differences in the people around us
- It helps us connect better with others and create communities of support
- It improves our ability to communicate with others
Empathy is a skill. Just like any skill, some people have a natural talent for it, while other people need to practice to develop it. At its core, empathy is about the way you respond to a person’s emotions. It is something you actively do, not just something you feel.
How do we learn empathy?
We can learn empathy by working on three areas of ourselves: the way we think, the way we understand ourselves, and the way we behave.
- Change the way you think about emotions
- What you or someone else feels is never wrong. Thoughts can be irrational or false. Behaviours can be harmful. Emotions are always valid.
- Care about the way other people feel. Choose to believe they are important.
- Understand your own feelings
- Pay attention to your own emotions. Know what you feel, how you feel it in your body, and why you feel it. Understanding our own emotions helps us connect with other people's emotions.
- Lots of people find it hard to understand their own emotions. If it's hard to identify your own emotions, search for an emotion wheel online to help guide you.
- Act in an empathic way
- When someone is telling you how they feel, pay attention. Listen and ask questions in a curious way.
- Connect to your own feelings. Remember a time you felt intense anger, fear, joy, surprise, or other emotions. Try to connect to that feeling again while you listen.
- Stop trying to figure out what you are going to say while the other person is talking. Listen to understand.
Barriers to learning empathy
Sometimes we have things that make it more difficult to express empathy. These can be the way we think, things we’ve experienced, and beliefs that we have. Here are a few examples.
- Dehumanization – believing that people who are not like us (e.g. different race, religion, gender, sexuality, values, ethnicity, culture, etc.) don’t think or feel the same things we do.
- Victim blaming – believing that when bad things happen to people, it is usually their fault in some way.
- Trauma – trauma can cut us off from our own emotions and make it more difficult to understand the emotions of others.
- Childhood experiences – if we haven’t experienced empathy from others as kids (or adults), it can make it difficult to know or care about empathy.
Mark Frederick, MC, CCC
Mental Health Therapist