WHOLEHEARTED LIVING - CULTIVATING EMPATHY

Empathy is seeing the world as others see it, being non-judgmental, and understanding another person's feelings.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO CULTIVATE EMPATHY?

Empathy is a tricky concept to get our heads around. For many years I thought sympathy and empathy were similar concepts. It wasn't until I read some of Brene Brown's work that I finally understood that sympathy is feeling BAD for someone, and empathy is feeling WITH someone. Sympathy leads to the oldest child coming out in me - I want to try to fix the person's pain or problem - or I've been known to try to identify by relating a similar story of my own - neither of these approaches have anything to do with empathy.

So what does empathy really look like when it's put into practice? Brene Brown (I'm a bit of a fan girl) has a fantastic little video that shows what empathy looks like in less than 3 minutes and I've included it here in case you haven't stumbled across it previously.


I have been guilty of being the 'deer' in this video  - and I still catch myself saying "At Least...." far too often. I am improving, and as I cultivate empathy in my life, I can pick myself up before I open my mouth, re-think my response, and also not immediately jump into "how can I fix you?" mode.

THE 4 ATTRIBUTES OF EMPATHY

In the video Brene refers to Theresa Wiseman's four attributes of empathy:

1. To be able to see the world as others see it - This requires putting your own "stuff" aside to see the situation through your loved one's eyes.

2. To be nonjudgmental - Judgement of another person's situation discounts the experience and is an attempt to protect ourselves from the pain of the situation.

3. To understand another person’s feelings - We have to be in touch with our own feelings in order to understand someone else's. Again, this requires putting your own "stuff" aside to focus on your loved one.

4. To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings—Rather than saying, "At least you..." or "It could be worse..." try, "I've been there, and that really hurts," or (to quote an example from Brene Brown), "It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it.”

"Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another." - Alfred Adler

DO YOU VIEW THE WORLD FROM INSIDE A SHINY BUBBLE?

Something I've noticed in my own life as I've shared my story with friends, is that they want to try to help me, but are coming from life experiences that are far away from what has defined my background - or even my recent ups and downs. They often have very "shiny" lives where things have run smoothly, they were treasured as children, had very supportive role models, a comfortable ride through choosing a career, and then flowed from there into secure relationships, working environments, and never faced any real life challenges.

I see that as coming from life inside a shiny bubble - they've led a life that's been insulated from most hardships and have very little comprehension of what it's like to struggle financially, emotionally, or personally. They've floated through life smoothly and pleasantly - the advice they offer tends to make me question myself even more, rather than being a solace or giving me the feeling that they understand what it is I might be struggling with. It's often what I encounter from younger people - they have life experience, but it's limited and still quite black and white - it takes decades to develop those grey nuances that help with understanding what another person is feeling.

Empathy involves looking at the real world - and not through the filter of your shiny, happy bubble.

EMPATHY DOESN'T INVOLVE PREACHING

When you're surrounded by fellow church goers, it's sometimes difficult to talk about issues you might be experiencing because there's always someone who has a bible verse (completely out of context), or a pat answer ("just pray about it"), or a pious response ("you just need to read your bible more"), which makes the person who's hurting feel even worse - as it infers they obviously aren't close enough to God in their spiritual walk, and just need to try harder for all their problems to go away and for heavenly peace to descend upon them.

It doesn't have to be religious preaching either - there's always someone who is willing to offer to fix you with their latest health advice, vitamin regime, or the "fantastic" article they read on the internet recently, or sharing the New Age philosophy they hold to. Preaching to someone who's hurting just adds another layer of pain. Pausing, listening, and trying to understand are far more helpful tools if you really want your friend to feel heard and cared for.

Empathy is really the opposite of spiritual meanness. It's the capacity to understand that every war is both won and lost. And that someone else's pain is as meaningful as your own. Barbara Kingsolver

LETTING GO OF ASSUMPTIONS

Cultivating a new way of approaching the world often involves letting go of something that holds us back. In the case of cultivating empathy, we need to let go of our assumptions. Assuming someone has the same family background as you, assuming someone has the same financial and physical resources as you, assuming someone has the same mental and emotional strength as you, assuming someone has the same belief system as you. When it comes to empathy it means you assume nothing, and just listen with an open heart and a desire to be there for the person who's sharing their story.

There have been many times when I've jumped in too soon and tried to solve a problem that wasn't mine to fix, and there have also been times when others have given me well meaning advice that has made me question myself unnecessarily. If someone is in pain, telling them not to be, or telling them that XYZ is an easy fix for them, over-simplifies the situation and devalues the other person's experience. Often things can't be fixed, sometimes they might not even be a "real" problem from your point of view, but offering a caring ear may be enough - and it's certainly better than jumping in and causing even more hurt.

WHAT ABOUT YOU?

Have you developed empathy for others or are you trying to solve their problem or defuse it by talking it down and making it seem paltry? Empathy takes practice and refinement - and for those of us who aren't naturally empathetic, it means we'll sometimes get it wrong, but each time we slow down, pause, and just listen is a step in the right direction. The world needs more empathy and I hope we can be a part of that.

RELATED POSTS


Empathy is seeing the world as others see it, being non-judgmental, and understanding another person's feelings.
Empathy is seeing the world as others see it, being non-judgmental, and understanding another person's feelings.

If you'd like to know when I write a new post, I'd love you to click HERE for email updates.
 And feel free to share this post by clicking on a share button before you go.
Or, alternatively, why not follow me on Facebook?
Cresting the Hill - a blog for Midlife (Middle Aged / 50+) women who want to thrive
Empathy is a super power

36 comments

  1. Interesting how you bring up the word and concept “empathy,” Leanne. Like you indicate right at the beginning, empathy and sympathy are sometimes used as synonymous concepts, incorrectly. I am with you on the learning curve of how to not necessarily jump into ‘fix it’ mode. As we both learn, people like to be heard and feelings validated. Number 3 evoked a visceral reaction......hitting a chord in me. Grey nuances is a great phrase. The word ‘assumptions’ is a great reminder.

    The shiny bubble descriptions evokes multi-layered feelings and a complicated concept. A shiny bubble may be an outward appearance.......unless we have walked in someone else’s shoes/life.

    Many great things to think about here, Leanne. I believe age, pausing, perspective has allowed me more empathy......like you say “practice and refinement.” Good one!xx

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Erica - maybe with age comes wisdom.....and empathy. I look at so many young people (under 40!) who splash out their relationship advice, their "how to have a successful marriage" advice, their parenting advice etc etc and I wonder to myself how they'll feel in 20 years when they look back on their simplistic formulas and see that not everyone fits into those neat boxes? Shades of grey are everywhere and we need to allow others to experience life differently to how we see it - and I've come to learn that I certainly don't have all the answers to the problems of the world around me!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Leanne, this truly explained empathy so well. I can relate to the church reference because my dad's advice to everything was to pray and our prayers would be answered! I think it turned me off more because praying didn't fix much in those days, at least for me. I definitely think maturity helps someone to be more empathetic but not always. I must read Brene Brown as that might be what I need at the moment. Regards Christina

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Christina - I never understood the kind of faith that saw God as a Genie - where you pray/make a wish and expect that he'll magically solve all your problems. I think we'd all be incredibly shallow if we sat around waiting for a magic wand to be waved every time we had a problem.
      Empathy comes from life experience and then having the patience and grace to listen and support others - something that I think comes with age if we do the work needed to get us there.

      Delete
  4. Hi Leanne it’s great to be back reading your blog again. I have missed it. I think I’ve developed empathy as I’ve aged. I had very little when I was younger and viewed the world as either black or white. Thanks for giving something to think about.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Jennifer - I'm the same and I think the shades of grey come with life experience and a little bit of wisdom. Not for everyone, but definitely for those who want to get along side others. Some young people have empathy, but most are too busy thinking they know all the answers :)

      Delete
  5. Hi, Leanne - I agree that empathy and sympathy are very different concepts. Sadly, they are often lumped together as one broad general definition. You have done a truly awesome job of defining them individually, with great examples.
    I also agree with Erica that many people may appear to live shiny bubbles on the outside, but that far from represents what they have experienced on the inside.
    Thank you for another very thought-provoking post.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Donna - shiny bubbles definitely can be masks, but I think there's a lot of people who skate through life and assume others have the same advantages. With all the references to 'white privilege' these days, it's something that I've come to see is an easy thing to not even realize you're doing. Stepping out of a bubble or at least recognizing you live in one is the beginning of empathy IMHO.

      Delete
  6. Hi Leanne, I thought I'd check in and see how you were and I loved this post. I confused empathy and sympathy for years and I would get too caught up in others' issues, as well as mine. It was actually by working on my own self-esteem and boundaries that I finally learnt what it all means. I thought you had a great point about those who have a shiny bubble though. I've met a few of those people along the years but I sometimes wonder if they've really questioned themselves or pushed themselves out of their comfort zone? Of course, no one has to do these things but can you really learn how to live fully if you don't? I wonder ... I definitely welcome the shades of grey today :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Anne - I was exactly the same when I was younger. I thought you just needed to buckle down and work through any problems in your life. Realizing that some areas can't be so easily fixed woke me up - and since then I've finally come to learn about boundaries (that took me more than 50 years!) and to allow others to experience life differently to me. Being able to acknowledge those shades of grey really helps us empathize with what others are going through.

      Delete
  7. Hi Leanne - I am coming to your blog after a long break. Enjoyed reading this piece. I am a compulsive empathiser. I tend to put myself in other people's shoes. It a powerful tool to help us understand the world around us, and help us lead better lives.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Pradeep - lovely to see you again and if there were more compulsive empathisers in our world it would be a much nicer place! Keep up the good work and hopefully more of us will be able to describe ourselves in that way as the years go by.

      Delete
  8. I learned the difference between sympathy and empathy from Brene Brown too. I love her books! I think it's natural to want to try to help someone who is in distress,but most times, we just need someone to listen and understand. I agree with your "shiny bubble" theory. People who have suffered themselves are often most empathetic. Shades of gray are what make life most interesting. Most issues cannot be seen in simple black and white. Thanks for the wonderful tips, Leanne.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Laurie - I'm not sure what it is about Brene, but she just nails it in such a warm and simple fashion. She cuts through all the fluffy stuff and gets to the heart of what it means to genuinely care for another person - and that's who I want to be when I grow up! I think shades of grey are the key and I'm so glad you understood what I meant about people who live charmed lives inside their bubbles.

      Delete
  9. Hi Leanne, I learned the difference between sympathy and empathy when I was 29 years old and lost my Dad in a horrific, preventable accident. He was 52. Not one of the hundreds of well-meaning people at his funeral understood that they had never walked in my shoes and probably never would. I don't blame them for their hallow, baseless words, which were meant to comfort. At least it taught me to never make the mistake of pretending I know what anyone who suffers is going through and that I know how to fix their pain. Sympathy, when it is sincere and heartfelt is the very best that we have to give. Empathy is a shared pain that transcends words. Personally, I think we should all stick to what we know.

    "Preaching to someone who is hurting just adds another layer of pain" is a good reminder to hold the tongue. Sometimes, a sympathetic ear and a hug makes it all seem bearable.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh Suzanne I'm so sorry to hear that about losing your Dad - and how inadequate the responses were (I would have been one of the guilty ones I'm sure - getting empathy right was never one of my strong points!) But I've learnt not to say "I know how you feel" or to share one of my own stories that is a shallow reflection of what someone else is going through. My biggest issue is learning that not all problems can be fixed and just to listen and care - and also not to take it on my own shoulders (part of the problem with the old horrible job!) xx

      Delete
  10. I like your descriptions and examples here Leanne, and that little video nailed it in terms of showing what the differences are. I've also come to appreciate the difference as I've got older and wiser, and not having lived a charmed life has helped me understand more too. Another fabulous post with great comments which shows how your words have resonated with others. I've pinned this to share. #lifethisweek

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Deb - I think we all want to avoid those tough times and challenges, but they hone us into better and deeper people who are able to identify with others who are going through difficult times too. As much as I'd love to have lived a shiny life, I don't think it would have been good for my character or my empathy levels - so I guess a little suffering is good for the soul x

      Delete
  11. Hi Leanne, I'm one of the few who aren't a Brene fan and I'm a little over her now. This ties in well with our previous comments about how people are different in their likes, dislikes and views, doesn't it? Anyway, back to your post which was excellent. I do feel I am an empathetic person but I agree people can confuse the meanings of empathy with sympathy. I think the video showed the difference very well. Sometimes we just want people to understand don't we? #lifethisweek

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Sue - I totally get that you'd have had your fill of Brene - she's been a bit of an Eddie Everywhere at times, but there are still some concepts that she's brought into my understanding that have clarified a lot of things for me. The idea of creating boundaries, not being perfect, letting go of the need to please others and to have all my ducks in a row etc etc. I like that you can see yourself as being empathetic - I'm still a work in progress where I want to truly feel empathy and not just manufacture it for the moment it's needed. So I'm working on keeping my ears open and my mouth shut :) xx

      Delete
  12. Leanne,

    Brene Brown’s teachings are always valuable and I appreciate your take on empathy. Brown is also someone to re-visit time and time again. My leaning curve is constantly shifting. Helen

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Helen - I completely agree that Brene always has something to offer. I think I find different nuggets depending on what I'm dealing with in my life at a particular time. She's taught me a lot of concepts that have really helped me move forward and be kinder to myself over the last several years - I'm glad you like her work too. :)

      Delete
  13. Oh so good to read this and know, as I am too, of the great ways in which Brene teaches us. I ammlisteing to her podcasts too and meeting new people there. It's there I heard her interview Dr Edith Eger and now I have her book, the Choice about life as a teen in Auschwitz and what she made of her life afterwards. It's both exciting and interesting for me to be continuing to learn. My husband taught me a lot about the difference between empathy and sympathy as I have always wanted to "fix things" for others. You know what I mean! Now, when I want to help, he has given me a great question to ask myself "am I doing this for that person or me".....Thanks so much for linking up for Life This Week #231. Glad to have you add your post as part of the community here. Next week. the optional prompt is Good. Hope to see you there. Denyse.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Denyse - I read The Choice a few years ago and really appreciated seeing how someone who had gone through so much could turn it around and not hate, but try to understand and to meet evil with good. I think we still have so much to learn from other wise women and I'm always seeking to "become" - I think that might be next year's WOTY!

      Delete
  14. Thanks for sharing this summary of empathy, Leanne. Brene Brown has much wisdom and real-life experience to share. This is a tough one for me, as it has been for many of your other readers. We want to help...fix things if we can. Often a listening ear or a literal shoulder to cry on is what's most needed. I try to wait until someone has asked for my advice or assistance to offer it. In sangha, we start out with a deep listening practice. Members of the sangha can speak about something in their lives, and the rest of us listen without responding, striving to do so without judgment. You'd be surprised (or maybe you wouldn't) at how much of our "listening" time is spent spinning a response in our heads. I will continue to work on empathy and appreciate the reminder.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Christie - I SO get it about listening but meanwhile coming up with all the potential solutions to the problem! It seems to be some sort of inbuilt response in a lot of us - I think it shows we care, but it's the next level with empathy isn't it? Putting ourselves out of the "fix it" mode and just being present for the other person - I still have a long way to go with this one.

      Delete
  15. Hi Leanne. I don't think I've ever got Sympathy & Empathy confused. Possibly because I have figured out in recent years that I am a classic 'empath'. I can walk into a room and feel peoples moods and I often absorb those moods and can become very drained by them. Being an empath explains why social occasions can leave me very drained and why I need time alone to recharge afterwards. It is not so much that I am an introvert afterall! Being an empath is a good thing because I am very caring and compassionate but I have learned that I need to be careful and put some strategies in place to protect myself. I can absorb the pain of people that I don't even know - like recently a Qld celebrity of similar age to me who lost her daughter. I could feel her pain so deeply and it greatly affected me. It's something my Psychologist is helping me with. Sympathy on the other hand is understanding the suffering of others but not actually feeling/experiencing it. It's an interesting topic!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Min - I think being an empath would be so draining if you didn't know how to manage it well. Boundaries helped me hugely in understanding that someone else's pain doesn't have to become mine - well that's how it should work, but so often it flows over the boundaries and hits us anyway. I'm so glad you're working on ways to keep this wonderful quality without allowing it to overwhelm you - we need more empathetic people in our world :)

      Delete
  16. I think it shows we care, but it's the next level with empathy isn't it? Putting ourselves out of the "fix it" mode and just being present for the other person - I still have a long way to go with this one. Satta Matka

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think that we actually finally arrive at understanding and practicing empathy when we can listen without planning a response that involves trying to fix the person or the problem. Caring is the first and only response in the beginning of the empathy journey - as time goes on we may be asked for help - but we need to wait for the right time don't we?

      Delete
  17. I also thought the two were synonymous for a long time. And then I mistakingly thought empathy meant I had to actually experience what the other experienced. But I'm learning now that empathy is not about listening and giving advice... it is about listening and truly hearing what the other needs to say. I like the way you put it: sympathy is feeling for someone... empathy is feeling with them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Molly - sometimes I think we're on parallel journeys :) Everything you said is exactly what I've been learning over time. I don't think I even realized I wasn't showing empathy until I learnt the difference - and even now I have to remind myself to listen and not speak! :)

      Delete
  18. Hi Leanne, I agree empathy and sympathy are two different concepts that most people confuse their meanings. The video showed the difference well. I've learned to listen more and some of my life experiences let me be more empathetic. An example is that I empathize with people who have lived in a long lockdown because I've been living with it. Thank you for sharing this at #WeekendCoffeeShare.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Natalie - yes I can see how living through lockdown for so long would help you empathize with others in the same boat - it will be the same with the decision about getting the vaccine. Those of us who are living life normally have far less understanding of what it's like for those who face increasing covid numbers every day.

      Delete
  19. This was so good Leanne. I'm not always good at this, but I'm learning.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Spot on again, Leanne. It is good that we can admit that we are still learning, I sure am. We will feature this in our next Blogger's Pit Stop.
    Kathleen

    ReplyDelete

Thanks so much for your comment - it's where the connection begins.