Empathy is a word that we see and use a lot these days. It seems difficult to pinpoint exactly what someone means when they ask for empathy - or declare that empathy is what they are expressing. But it’s definitely a “good thing to do”.
According to the dictionary definition, empathy is a “psychological identification” or personal “experiencing of the emotions, thoughts and attitudes of another”.
And emotional researchers describe it as:
“the ability to sense other people's emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.”
When you look at the word in the thesaurus, you get results like “appreciation”, ''insight”, “warmth”, “recognition”, “comprehension” and even “being there for someone”.
So am I “identifying”, “experiencing”, “sensing”, “imagining” or just “seeing” these emotions as I empathise?
It’s perhaps not surprising that ‘empathy’ has clearly joined the ranks of words in the English language that are no longer exclusively used as the dictionary defines them. And to be honest, it’s probably a lot safer when it comes to claiming empathy in our relationships, or even in our everyday interactions, that we don’t clarify how the word is being used. Because expecting someone to accurately recognise, much less experience or identify with, someone’s else’s emotional response to a complex situation is a lot to expect from any mere mortal… especially when we often don’t even really understand our own emotional responses to something to start with.
When we’re struggling in life, we definitely rely on “empathy”. It’s important to be able to reach out to loved ones, or professionals, or bosses, colleagues, peers and feel that we are being understood without being expected to be able to clearly and effectively explain exactly what we are going through... because we are unlikely to have the resources to do that even if we tried – and often we don’t want to have to work that hard anymore. It’s hugely comforting to have someone get how you feel and allow you to be having the experience you are. So why is it that the phrase ‘I know how you feel’ (essentially the definition of empathy), can make us absolutely sure that the person uttering those words does not?
The answer is one of the core concerns I have in the modern request that everyone have empathy in their workplace, with their friends and families, and at a global level.
If it is true that our emotional responses are a result of our genetics, personality, childhood upbringing, education, exposures to trauma and opportunity, critical reflective skills, and our present environment and support resources (as so many experts, books and websites tell us, including this one), then it is near impossible for anyone other than us to actually know what the emotional response we are having is.
To be fair, this does assume a few things:
· That there aren’t just 6-8 emotions in human experience. While many esteemed psychologists reference these basic emotional states, language allows us to differentiate and nuance these into at least 25 (and some say up to 30000) different feelings.
· That the external expression of emotion may not be consistent across all humans i.e. despair does not always look like Bridget Jones crying on the sofa, drinking wine. So scientific analysis of characteristics is not enough to name something.
· That there are enough other social factors going on e.g. social politeness, shame, guilt and roles and responsibilities to name a few, that whatever we are feeling and how we might express this could be filtered into something very different, just because other people can see us.
But I hope that it doesn’t take too much effort on your part to accept these as truth.
So when this person utters that phrase, what is going on?
For those who know us well enough, our friend or confidante of choice, what they mean is they understand how we feel. And this is probably the closest to empathy. The more they know about us or are similar to us, the more likely they know what the emotion is and where it comes from. And the more they care about us, the more likely they are to feel their own emotional sense of what we are going through. For many, it will be more one than the other – more understanding, but perhaps not as emotionally strong… or not quite the same emotion, but high levels of it. Both versions make us feel less alone, and more cared for, and tend to make this person an ally- and a helpful one at that.
For the next layer out, our friends and family, close work colleagues, others we respect and trust but who don’t have that significant level of insight into us, this is their way of saying, what I think you’re feeling is a normal and comprehensible reaction to the situation at hand, and I’m ok with it. Again, it’s meant to make you feel less alone. However, it can go both ways… While it can help, occasionally it gives us the feeling that this person thinks that nothing particularly outrageous or unique has happened here - which may be an essential part of the emotion being felt. And if that is the case, then to be honest, they haven’t recognized your emotion, so actually aren’t being empathic, and they don’t get it.
The risk with wanting empathy- true understanding and feeling the same things, is that often what we need/want is actually care and compassion. This can be given without complete experiential insight, and actually can be hindered if someone is too caught up in the emotion with you. Sometimes a bit of time and lee way for those who are trying to be empathic can allow us to see they are making an effort and want to help, and that may be enough.
There are times, however, where empathy can become a weapon. ‘Actually, your feelings right now are not okay because I’m so empathic it will drain my energy.’ Assuming this person is genuinely taking on the feeling, or the “psychological” experience, then this may indeed be a lot to handle. But this person will take your emotion, remove it from your context, and inevitably put it into their own context. At which point it’s no longer the same experience or emotion… is it?
The other way empathy has become a tool for conflict is when it is held up like a prize and it’s ownership provides the right to look down on those who can’t “empathise”. As if not being able to see how someone else is feeling AND understand why it is happening AND care enough that you then create an emotional response in yourself which is similar in nature makes you a bad person. Empathy is not always helpful. But more importantly, all the individual elements listed – recognizing emotion OR understanding why OR trying to help actually go a long way without having to happen at once, with a dose of high-level emotion on top. The discounting of these supposed “lesser versions” of care is actually not only inaccurate, but actually very destructive to well-being and resilience in society.
So, if empathy is not only much harder and more unlikely than we’d like to think, and can become a negative, what does that mean?
· Maybe it’s about realizing sometimes you don’t understand how someone else feels – even if you know how you would feel or are feeling something yourself. This encourages you to take a bit more time finding out more from them, before jumping to a conclusion about what’s happening.
· Maybe it’s about being okay with not “feeling how they feel” because actually it could be useful to that person to have someone who is not living in it.
· Maybe it’s about understanding what it is you are really trying to do. Goleman and Ekman talk about three components of Empathy – cognitive (I understand), emotional (I feel), compassionate (I help) – which takes the phrase empathy beyond just a passive emotional mirroring. This can be really helpful to work out how to express your “empathy” and what to do with it.
o Talking it through so you don’t feel crazy
o Crying or yelling with you
o Organising the thing you need to happen in the next hour
o …. while holding your hand could fulfill the “Empathy” requirement.
To achieve any version of Empathy or it’s (very equally important) companions; Compassion, Care, Understanding, Insight and Appreciation, we can always learn new skills.
For those born with true “empathy” or those who are highly emotional, it can be about regulating our emotions when needed to keep our cognitive capacity.
For those who don’t really notice other people’s emotions, it might be about developing the right questions and language to gather more information, even if you don’t get it yourself, so that you can help find a solution.
For those in between, it could be as simple as not judging yourself on your degree of empathy when you don’t get it or trying to show that you do “psychologically identify” even if it puts you at risk, and just be proud of the compassion or understanding you do provide as an excellent outcome in itself. Being someone who is willing to put their needs aside and offer some kindness and patience for what is happening in a journey that is inevitably different to their own is an incredible gift.
In the end, when that next curve ball gets thrown in the game of life, we don’t need someone to stand right next to us and try to catch it with us. Depending on the game you’re playing, it could be having someone to throw the ball to, a fielder to run out and grab it if it goes over your head, a player who pats you on the back if you drop it, a coach to show you how to catch it next time, or a crowd to cheer when you do catch it yourself. That is how we keep playing the game.