The Power of Empathy

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.

Build Bridges

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.

Create Safety

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!


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