25 Aug The Power of Empathy
Empathy often gets confused with sympathy, but they are actually quite different from one another.
While empathy prioritizes the other person’s experiences and feelings, sympathy prioritizes your own experiences over the experience of the other person. Empathy has many definitions, but my favorite comes from researchers at Berkeley University: “Empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.” Brene Brown, one of the foremost researchers on empathy, expanded on this definition of empathy by identifying four separate steps or components to showing empathy:
- Perspective-taking, or putting yourself in someone else’s shoes
- Avoiding judgement and focusing on listening
- Recognizing an emotion in that person that you may have felt before
- Communicating to that other person that you can recognize that feeling
If you’d like to learn a little more about what empathy is and isn’t, check out this wonderful animated explanation of empathy, narrated by Brene Brown herself.
I consider empathy to be a kind of superpower because it allows us to do amazing things in our relationships.
When we use our superpower of empathy, we are able to:
Break Down Walls
Empathy allows us to maintain connections to others even if we don’t agree with them. When we empathize with someone else by acknowledging their emotions, trying to take their perspective, and avoiding judgement, we can maintain connection and understanding with that person without necessarily agreeing or abandoning our own experiences and beliefs.
Through being empathetic, we can communicate caring and understanding even if we have never experienced a similar situation ourselves. Let’s look at an example, and say I have a friend who experienced a home break-in. At first, I might not feel that I have anything to offer this friend as I have never had this happen to me. However, if I recognize that my friend is feeling scared, I might be able to think to a time in my life that I have felt scared, recognize that feeling in myself, and communicate to that friend that I understand how they would feel scared, that I accept that feeling, and that I have some understanding of how difficult it is to feel scared. This way I can stay connected to my friend even if I can’t fully put myself in their shoes.
Because empathy can break down walls between perspectives that feel completely in opposition to one another and can build bridges between people even if they have had very different lives, empathy can create safety in relationships. This means that when people know they can depend on an empathetic response from one another, they can feel freer to share differing beliefs or perspectives as well as share feelings and experiences that make them feel quite vulnerable. With empathy, same experiences, same beliefs, and same feelings are not a prerequisite for connecting with or understanding one another.
Proven Benefits of Empathy
- Fosters interpersonal connections
- Improves the quality of relationships
- Lowers stress
- Builds feeling of belonging
- Builds intimacy
- Can protect against feelings of burnout and compassion fatigue
- Reduces feelings of shame and blame
- Allows us to learn more about ourselves as we learn about others
- Improves communities by reducing prejudice, racism, bullying, school suspensions, improving health care, combating inequality, and promoting altruistic and heroic acts
How You Can Nurture Empathy in Yourself
- Be an active listener
- Pay special attention to body language and facial expressions
- Look for commonalities between yourself and others
- Avoid jumping to conclusions
- Practice mindfulness
- Participate in altruistic acts
- Combat inequality and oppression
- Consider therapy! If you would like to grow your superpower of empathy, or would like therapeutic support in nurturing in your family or couple relationship, North Shore Family Services is here to help!
Rachael is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who earned her Master of Science in Human Development and Family Studies from Purdue University Northwest. Rachael also completed her bachelor’s degree in Child Development and Family Studies at Northern Illinois University in preparation for her graduate degree. Rachael has experience working with individuals, couples, families, and children in therapy as well as helping clients navigate larger systems such as schools, healthcare settings, and DCFS.
Rachael takes a collaborative, non-judgmental approach to therapy and believes that she has a responsibility as a therapist to create a safe, supportive, open environment where clients feel empowered to take an active role in the therapy process. Rachael focuses on patterns within and across generations of families, the balance between connectedness and individuality, and increasing an individual’s ability to cope with and tolerate stress. Rachael uses Bowenian family therapy, Narrative Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and play/experiential therapies to work with children, families, couples, and individuals to address behavioral, emotional, and relational issues and facilitate positive change. Rachael regularly includes art, music, storytelling, and games in her work with children and families to help children to feel comfortable in therapy and connect what happens in therapy to the children’s’ home and school lives. Rachael’s other areas of expertise and interest include trauma, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, grief and loss, life transitions, identity formation, and communication. Rachael is certified in Gottman Couples Therapy Levels 1 and 2 and has completed SafeZone LGBTQ Ally training.
When Rachael is not working with clients, she enjoys discovering new music, reading, cooking, visiting museums, and spending time with her fiancé and hound-mix dog.