Empathy, which is a critical component of close relationships, can be a confusing concept. Definitions of empathy vary. One of my favorites comes from Dr. Judith Jordan who wrote in her seminal paper “Empathy and Self Boundaries,” “Empathy is a complex cognitive and affective process in which you feel the other person’s emotions in your body, but at the same time that you feel their feelings in YOUR body, you know it is THEIR feelings you are feeling.
A corollary of this definition is that it’s impossible to have empathy for someone when they are feeling something that you will not allow yourself to feel.
This means, for example, that if someone is feeling vulnerable, and you refuse to allow yourself to feel weak, you will not be able to empathize with them.
Empathy is usually learned from growing up in a family that showed it. Yet that is not always the case — I have clients who grew up in very difficult families who are nevertheless profoundly empathic. Such people have broken the cycle of neglect or abuse they experienced and been able to create rich, loving relationships with friends, partners, and children.
Here are four general rules for how not to relate if you are trying to be empathic:
• Do not minimize what other people saying. And don’t simply reassure them or downplay what they are feeling in an attempt to make them feel better.
• Do not piggyback on what they are saying and immediately add in your own experience with a similar issue.
• Do not give them your own advice, suggestions, or opinions.
• Do not question or analyze them.
As you look at these rules, you may realize that having empathy is very difficult for you. It may also be true that no one in your whole life ever was empathic to you. Just realizing that is an important step.
The good news is that you can learn empathy through reading or through finding a therapy group. (The American Psychological Association has a lot of free materials on line about what group therapy is about.)
In the meantime, if you are just beginning to try to be empathic, follow the rules above, make good eye contact, smile, and just listen to what the other person is saying. Really listen.
Listen so carefully that you can repeat back to them what it is they just said to you. So you’d simply say, “So what you are saying is x, y, and z.”
And if they say, “Yes, that’s what I am saying,” you have at least taken the first step in learning how to be present in a relationship, to be an active listener, and to give the other person your full attention.
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