Among other great skills required for life and love, I often teach my couples about the art of empathy. Empathy is a condition and skill of all functional interpersonal relationships. And, no, empathy is not about feeling sorry for someone. Rather, it is more about feeling with someone. Many of us frequently confuse empathy with sympathy. Think of it this way: empathy is about trying to step into someone else’s shoes, whereas sympathy is more about feeling sorry for someone else’s shoes:-). Ok, so maybe it’s not the best example, but I think you get the gist: empathy says, “I hear you and I want you to know that you aren’t alone….you can open up with me…I won’t judge you because even if I don’t know what you are going through, I am willing to show up”. Empathy is like the fundamental skillset for bringing compassion into life.
Empathy by Proxy
Empathy can be an equation between two but often seem like an interaction of one. That’s because empathy can be both a state of mind and a character trait. Nonetheless, empathy needs to be genuine: it cannot be faked. We need to first be aware and understand our own feelings so that we may truly tune into our partner’s feelings. Empathy has no room for judgement, and always makes space for humility…..especially during difficult times. Yes, we need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable with our own sense of brokenness (or what I call emotional raw spots) before we can ever genuinely begin to turn toward our partner and learn to appreciate their own so-called humanness. As I often say to my couples, “Empathy -like marriage- is never for the faint of heart”. :-)
“Empathy is a choice. And it’s a vulnerable choice, because in order to connect with you I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” Brené Brown
Empathy requires exposure of our private world of fears, failures, anxieties and uncertainties. It’s risky business. But, putting yourself “out there” is not a sign of weakness. Instead, it’s like building a foundation of support for your partner: so that they, too, can open up when life becomes messy and imperfect…and still feel like they are home or on solid ground-with you. In the end, it’s about being able to see a little of yourself in each other.
An Effort of Give & Take
I think it’s important to know that Empathy (and what you are attempting to achieve between the both of you) has as much to do with understanding as with dialogue. Giving or showing empathy is the effort made toward understanding another’s circumstances, even though we cannot fathom exactly what they may be feeling or going through. It has more to do with knowing the vulnerable experience of offering connection and presence, as in, “You’re not alone, I have also struggled”…even if you do not share the exact same point of reference. On the receiving end of empathy, we are offered the experience of acceptance and the knowledge of empowerment, or the courage and strength it takes to be vulnerable and feel less alone in our experiences when we choose to reach out. As you can see, there can be no empathy without vulnerability.
Here are some examples of how to show empathy:
And here are some other helpful tips for improving your skills:
Lastly, here is a beautifully animated short video that really sends the message home!