What is Empathy and who needs it?

30 Jul What is Empathy and who needs it?

When you live in a fast-paced world and juggle work, home and maybe kids, who has time to offer empathy? and what is empathy anyway? Empathy is a way to express understanding of the way the other person is feeling without passing judgement or accepting responsibility for their feeligs. Some people believe that by offering empathy they will be perceived as conceding or giving in to the other person. This is absolutely not true. Expressing understanding does not mean you are giving in. Consider the following example: you are at the supermarket with your 3-year-old daughter. She wants some candy. You refuse to buy it and she starts crying. You say: “you’re disappointed. You wish I bought you that candy.” At the same time you are not buying the candy. Your daughter gets empathy but you haven’t given in. Chances are, if you continue providing empathy but stick to your guns, your daughter will calm down.

Many people confuse sympathy with empathy so here’s a little clarification. Sympathy is conveying how you feel about another person’s misfortune, distress or situation. For example, a ¬†friend lost her job and you say “I’m sorry to hear about it.” You are talking about how YOU feel about their problem. You could also offer an empathic response like “this must be really hard for you.” In offering empathy you are conveying to the other person that you understand how THEY feel.

Empathy is important to all of us because, as humans, we all have a need to feel understood. Empathy is extremely important in couples relationship. Time and again in therapy, I see partners who could use a lot more empathy in their communication. For example, since their son Julien was born 6 months ago, Kathy and Tim (all made-up names) have been fighting a lot. Kathy has been home with Julien and Tim works from 9-5 every week day. When Tim comes home he complains about being tired and frustrated at work. He says to Kathy he envies her for being at home all day, not having to deal with demanding bosses and unreasonable deadlines. Kathy is also exhausted and sometimes frustrated at the end of a demanding day taking care of Julien, who can be fussy at times. She sometimes wishes she could go to work only so that she is able to sit down and have lunch while not holding the baby at the same time. They get into a competition of sorts as to who is more tired and who should do more around the house and with the baby. The transition to parenthood poses new challenges to couples and adjusting to the new lifestyle may take time and patience. In therapy, Kathy and Tim learned to offer empathy to one another rather than become defensive about how hard they each work. They learned that by offering empathy they did not necessarily agree that their partner was more tired or worked harder than they did but that a little empathy can go a long way in how they feel about each other and about their relationship. After only 6 sessions of couples therapy, Tim was able to come home and say to Kathy “sounds like you’ve had a rough day today.” Kathy was able to say to Tim “it must be hard for you to cope with all these unreasonable demands at work.” Now that each one of them was feeling understood and validated, they were able to brain-storm a fair and supportive plan of action for the evening hours. Fighting was reduced to a minimum and the overall feelings of contentment and harmony were restored for this couple.

In my practice I often see new parents and many new mothers who suffer from postpartum depression. Some partners find it hard to believe that offering empathy would help their wives cope. Some of them believe that if you say something like “you are sad and disappointed” that their wife is going to be even more depressed. But research and practice shows the exact opposite; ¬†Empathy and validation of one’s feelings do not send them deeper into depression. Rather, it helps them feel understood, accepted, validated, all contributing factors to healing and recovery.

So offer a little empathy to your partner, friend, family-member or even your demanding boss. You’d be surprised at how long it can go!

For help, contact Dr. Regev, R.Psych. RMFT.