One of the most important skills in life to create harmonious relationships, reduce stress and enhance emotional awareness is empathy. Being empathetic requires skill and can be tricky at times. When you relate to another persons feelings and needs, you build connections. To truly be empathetic requires the ability to shed the need to blame, advise or fix. You simply listen and relate. When we feel empathy for others it gives us a perspective, a sense of peace and connects us to them.
Emotionally intelligent people are people who have experienced a wide range and variety of feelings. They have felt great depths of depression and heights of fulfillment. This enables them to be able to relate with many more people than someone who has not experienced or acknowledged their own feelings.
We often can be very empathetic to those we aren’t close to. Problems can arise when we have an emotional connection to the people or situation. When we feel threatened, stressed or emotionally triggered, we have trouble being empathetic.
Empathy is sometimes misunderstood. Empathy and sympathy are two different things. When we’re sympathetic, we often pity another, but maintain our distance (physically, mentally, and emotionally) from their feelings or experience. Empathy is more a sense that we can truly understand, relate to, or imagine the depth of another person’s emotional state or situation. Empathy, implies feeling with a person, rather simply feeling sorry for them. And in some cases that “person” is actually us.
When we are empathetic, we get into another person’s world and connect with them both emotionally and compassionately. We don’t have to agree with them or fully understand them to be able to empathize. We simply need to be present, and acknowledge what they’re experiencing.
The problem is that we often allow our egos, opinions, and judgments get in the way of our ability to experience and express empathy. It can be very easy to empathize with someone if you agree with them completely and see the world the way they do. It can be a lot more difficult if you don’t agree and have a different take on a situation, or believe that their reaction is unwarranted or harmful to themselves or to others.
Being able to empathize with others in all situations is essential to the health and success of our relationships and lives. It is a key element to our own emotional intelligence and well being. With the people closest to us, including ourselves, and the issues that mean the most to us, empathy is even more critical, but often more difficult for us to experience and express.
Sometimes there are things that get in the way that make it difficult for us to experience the power of empathy. There are three main reasons:
- Feeling threatened: Sometimes people or situations make us feel threatened. Our survival instinct kicks in which makes us want to protect ourselves. It can be difficult to have compassion and sympathy for someone or a situation that feels threatening to us. Often we feel threatened based on our own inner demons, past experience and projections. It doesn’t matter if the threat is real or imagined. It has the same effect of shutting us out of being able to experience empathy.
- Judgment: Part of the decisions we make on a daily basis from dressing ourselves, to entertaining ourselves involve making decisions and judgment. We make a value judgment when we decide we would rather eat a salad than a hamburger. It is normal to make decisions based on judgment. Being judgmental is a little different. This is where we decide we are right and someone else is wrong. When we do it, we hurt ourselves and others. It cuts us off from the ability to see alternative realities and possibilities. By judging another person, we diminish our ability to be compassionate and empathetic toward others.
- Fear: The root of all evil is fear. When we are threatened we are afraid. When we judge we are afraid. When we have no compassion or feeling, we are afraid. Fear has a very important place in our lives so long as it is healthy and rational. It keeps us out of trouble and at times, will save our lives. Problems arise when we deny our fear, don’t take responsibility for it, and try to hide it. There are many situations that we are fearful of. Instead of facing it head on and owning it. we make it about someone or something else other than ourselves. Fear is a terrible motivator that often leads us to defend ourselves against unwarranted threats, judgment and condemnation. It kills the ability to be empathetic towards others.
Are there situations in your life that make you feel threatened or judgmental? Often these things cause you to become less empathetic. The more look at it honestly and take responsibility for it, the more you’ll be able to expand your capacity to be empathetic with yourself and with others.
Becoming more empathetic
There are many ways to cultivate more empathy in our lives. It starts by increasing our ability to feel and experience things. When you become more empathetic, you enhance your relationships and feel good about yourself because you are living your life in an authentic way.
Here are a few things you can do and think about to become more empathetic:
- Be honest about your feelings: When you are honest about how you really feel, and have enough courage to be vulnerable with yourself and others, you liberate yourself from negativity, projections and judgment that conceal your inner truth. One of the best ways to move past conflict and defensiveness with another person is to have the ability to admit, own and express our feelings of fear, anger, sadness, and insecurity. When we do this, we access our feelings of empathy toward ourselves, others.
- Put yourself in someone else’s shoe: It is often very difficult to understand another person’s perspective, especially if we do not agree with them, having the ability to imagine what they are feeling is vital to feeling empathy. Empathizing does not require condoning or justifying inappropriate behavior. People don’t hurt others if they aren’t already feeling past or present hurt themselves in some part of their life. The more willing you are to put yourself in their position, the more likely you will be able to have compassion and empathy for them.
- Forgiving yourself and others: One of the most important things we can do in life to heal ourselves is to let go of negativity and live a fulfilling peaceful life. The road to forgiveness starts with yourself. Forgiving ourselves gives us the opportunity to get a perspective and to rid ourselves of self-judgment. Forgiving ourselves is easier said than done. It takes practice and mentoring. Often we aren’t taught or encouraged how to forgive in a genuine way because the role models in our lives aren’t good examples. When we are willing to forgive ourselves and others, and practice it continually, we become more able to genuinely empathize with others.