The concept of Empathy seems to have become a bit of a buzz word in this day and age. The term itself was first introduced by psychologist Edward B. Titchener in 1909 as a translation of the German term einfühlung (meaning "feeling into"), though has been popularized today in large part due to the work of Brené Brown. Not only does this construct have widespread affects in the arena of Counseling and Psychology, it’s applications in the business and leadership world are numerous as well. All this aside, the most important application for empathy exists within our daily lives: in our relationships. As parents, siblings, partners, coworkers, sons and daughters, we could all use a little more empathy in our lives.
What is it?
Empathy is the word we use to describe our attempts at understanding another person and sharing in their emotion, be it positive or negative. Put another way, it is taking a dive into the subjective experience of another, and viewing the world through their lens, value, or belief system. Having the skill of empathy allows us to relate to others, and to have a sense for what they might be experiencing in any given moment, in order to respond appropriately. This is a highly adaptive response for us to employ, as humans are decidedly social creatures who exist in communication with one another in the majority of daily activities.
The concept of empathy can be understood a through a number of differing lenses, however none appear to be as compelling as nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman's four attributes of empathy:
To be able to see the world as others see it—This requires suspending your own perspective to be able to understand the viewpoint of another.
To be nonjudgmental—Judgement, whether positive or negative, ultimately serves as a separation of ourselves from the pain, discomfort, or even joy of another’s situation. It often leaves its victim feeling discounted and dejected, and its perpetrator caged in from the true experience of human emotion. To be nonjudgmental is to let down those walls that separate.
To understand another person’s feelings— In order to become perceptive regarding the experiences of others, it is imperative that you remain in touch with your own feelings. Often, we must connect to a time or place in our inner reality when we experienced similar emotions in order to truly understand someone else’s.
To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings—Rather than speaking any number of the clever responses you may have to someone else’s situation that start with “At least…” (Judgement), or “It could be worse…” (more Judgement), try “I can see that you’re hurting” or “I can imagine that you’re feeling (hopeless/lost/confused)”
In Brené Brown’s talk I Thought it Was Just Me (But It Isn't) (2008), she references these attributes listed above with great clarity and has added her depth of knowledge from over a decade of research in the field. The RSA has created an animated short of the talk, which you can view here.
To be clear, an empathic response is not telling someone that you understand, but showing it through showing up for them. It is not sympathetic well-wishes or offering over-simplified solutions. It is not to try to “fix it” or “make it better,” but to sit with them, unashamedly in the middle of it all.
Empathy is communicating to another, even in the midst of painful emotions, that you are there for them to share in their experience, and perhaps even to lighten the load.
Empathy is a skill that often therapists do best. If you need to talk to someone about whatever might be going on in your life, or could benefit from utilizing the skill of empathy in your interpersonal relationships, don’t hesitate to reach out to us now and schedule an appointment. In the midst of it all, we are here to help.