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Empathy Today: What it is and What it isn't.

It's a phrase that's common today: empathy. Many people constantly pontificating who has it and who doesn't; how much you have it; what that means about you.

Is empathy important? Of course. It is what allows us to connect with other humans at deeper levels. It's biological. It's rooted in our brains, or bodies, our evolutionary history.

But, with something so embedded in not just our vocabulary, but our DNA, we should probably know what it is...and what it isn't.

Because, like many things, empathy has morphed into a generality - a term to be used to fit a narrative or situation. It's lost its actual meaning and it's been replaced with an idea. Or used as a concept.

It's my intention to help clarify empathy and encourage you to reflect on how you've been using empathy in your life. Perhaps this post may help you hone in on a truer sense of the word, which will allow you to deepen connections even more and invite more joy and peace in to your life.

What is empathy?

Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.

Researchers at Berkeley state that contemporary research often differentiates between two types of empathy: “Affective empathy” refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to others’ emotions; this can include mirroring what that person is feeling, or just feeling stressed when we detect another’s fear or anxiety. “Cognitive empathy,” sometimes called “perspective taking,” refers to our ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions.

Basic enough, right?

But in modern society, empathy has become almost like a game of telephone: The term has been transmuted and become synonymous with different traits.

What empathy isn't.

First and foremost, empathy is not sympathy.

This is one of the first things they teach in coaching: empathy is not sympathy.

Sympathy exudes pity. Pity is conjured up when you witness someone’s misfortune and have an uncomfortable, negative reaction to their circumstance. A 'happy I'm not in your position' type feeling...which immediately puts you 'above' someone else. Pity can sometimes be based in sorrow, but often it's rooted in shame. Example: I felt so sorry for her when she got reprimanded in front of the whole team.

That's not empathy for her, but rooted in the shame you feel had it been you and not her...which is about you.

Do you see how that isn't empathy? Often, to have true empathy, you must set aside your feelings about the situation.

Empathy is not 'put yourself in someone else's shoes'.

As stated above: perspective taking refers to our ability to identify and understand other people's emotions. Yes, that is important, but too often, we take on other people's emotions as our own.

That doesn't make you more empathetic. It often means you have porous boundaries. Again, this comes down to: this is your circumstance/energy/conflict and this is mine.

You can absolutely have empathy without taking on someone else's emotions. You simply need to be open to hearing why they feel how they feel.

..which leads to...

Empathy is not validating or agreeing.

Have you ever been in a situation where your friend is saying how it's been the worse day ever, and this happened and this happened, and "Ugh! Why does this keep happening to me?! Nothing ever goes my way!"

And your natural inclination is to say, "I know! It's just not fair!"

...and you buy into the emotion behind it 'cause you're trying to help her feel better about the situation...

Except, in that moment, although well intentioned, you just validated the victimhood of the situation. You've validated the stories of 'why' she's powerless in the situations. And yes, you had the best intentions, to show her you understand why she feels that way, because, hello, we've all felt that way before!

But agreement is not empathy.

A better response would have been:

It sounds like there's a lot on your plate that's been challenging.

Or, that must be frustrating for you.

This is commonly referred to as: Meeting someone where they are.

It's not your job to fix them or the situation.

And it's not helpful to validate their stuck-ness.

Empathy is the ability to 'hold space' for whatever they're feeling and experiencing.

Allowing them to navigate it with your neutrality.

Empathy is not liking everyone.

To go along with that above, there's a misconception that you must have positive feelings about a person to truly empathize with them. That's not true.

Want to truly test your empathy?

Do this for someone you disagree with: Allow them to talk. Allow them space to explain why they feel the way they feel, without you needing to fix, educate, change their mind. Why? Because empathy is hearing everyone out, especially when you dislike them. It's not agreement. It's an attempt to understand.

I'll be honest, when I hear people saying things like, "I'll never understand how someone could think......", I laugh on the inside. Because it's often said in relation to empathy, yet, it's the exact antithesis of empathy: You're literally stating how you refuse to understand.

This is where most of us get tripped up in regards to empathy...

Empathy is not making assumptions.

As stated above, too often, we personalize empathy. We make it about how we would feel, we take on others emotions because of our past experiences and those emotions, we bring our stuff into it. One pitfall of empathy is making assumptions or extending biases.

Avoid making the mistake of over-generalizing (you know what your sister who is a single mom is going through, so you assume you know what all single moms are facing). Also avoid the mistake of making assumptions based on your own experience (you went through something, and believe everyone else going through it is having the same issues you did). Ask questions. Ask questions to truly understand those you are speaking with and are around.

Last but not least:

Empathy doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll want to help someone in need.

Just because you don't respond in a way someone expects you to respond does not mean you lack empathy. Just because you don't act in a way someone expects you to act does not mean you lack empathy.

I (and my Coach) call this My-My: My rules for me, my rules for you.

We all do this from time to time. We take our values and expect others to not only demonstrate those values, but also demonstrate them in the same manner that we do.

This becomes a direct pitfall in empathy. Ex: I want your support, but I want it in the way I want it, when I want it, how I want it. If we don't get it, we often default to blame or claim that someone is being apathetic or doesn't care. Again, that's not true.

Empathy is to listen to this person, gain clarity on how you can help them or support them, then, decide if that is something you're able to do. Not out of self-interest (what do I get out of this), but out of self-respect (not compromising my needs and values in order to appease someone else).

Here are some of the keys that researchers have identified for nurturing empathy in ourselves and others:

  • Get out of your head - be present: Practicing mindfulness helps us hear the perspectives of other people yet not feel overwhelmed when we encounter their negative emotions.

  • Don't jump to conclusions about others: Actively listen to what's being said now rather than letting previous held beliefs, past memories, and personal situations filter what's going on now.

  • Meditate: Neuroscience research by Richard Davidson and his colleagues suggests that meditation, specifically loving-kindness meditation, which focuses attention on concern for others, might increase the capacity for empathy among short-term and long-term meditators alike (though especially among long-time meditators). I've used a loving-kindness mediation in this way: Think of someone you love dearly - send love their way. Think of a friend or acquaintance - send love their way. Think of a coworker or acquaintance that you care about but often rubs you the wrong way - send love their way. Think of someone you don't like (or an 'enemy') - send love their way. End with love for you home, then your block, then your community, city, state, country, world.

Having read this, has your interpretation of empathy changed?

If so, what jumped out to you? How might you show up differently now?

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