Do you show empathy to someone being emotional?
When you’re with someone who is experiencing painful emotions, do you listen and show empathy or are you more likely to criticise them for being over (or under) emotional? Do you perhaps proffer a variety of solutions or do you try to ignore their feelings?
If dealing with someone else’s emotions is a challenge for you and prevents you from showing empathy, it may be worth considering what makes you respond the way you do. It could be something from the past is being triggered or it could be a fear of any number of things.
What is empathy? and what role does it play in building relationships?
Empathy is the ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes and thus understand how they might be feeling. It’s a valuable skill that can help us connect to others and improve our relationships. We don’t need to have had the same experience in order to empathise but we do need to be able put our own thoughts and feelings (including any judgements or fears) to one side and listen.
What gets in the way of empathy?
A fear of being consumed by another person’s feelings is one obstacle that can get in the way of empathy.
My four year old nephew was recently telling me a story about a polar bear. When he got to the part where the polar bear became stuck under the ice, he began to cry. Very quickly he was engulfed by emotion and his story-telling came to a halt. It was almost as if he was right there under the ice, with the bear. He was imagining how the bear would be feeling and resonating with those feelings – he was empathising.
Without awareness of whose pain is whose – ie no boundary between the two – this kind of empathy can result in us being consumed by another’s feelings. This was what was happening to my nephew. Imagining the pain of the polar bear was was causing him distress because he was unable to step back and get perspective on either his own or the polar bear’s feelings and thus could not separate one from the other.
I too was moved with emotion because of the empathy I felt for my nephew. His feelings resonated within me.
My nephew and I were both experiencing what Psychologist, Dr Paul Ekman calls “affective empathy” ie when you are so attuned to another, you feel the same emotions as they are feeling, or as you imagine they are feeling.
It was challenging to see someone I love being upset, but I was aware that the best way to support him was not to become engulfed by his emotion but to stay aware of the boundary between his feelings and my own and, as he is a young child, to offer some support. As adults, we need to be able to define and maintain this boundary in order to be able to offer constructive support.
This form of empathy is what Ekman calls “compassionate empathy”.
How do you maintain a boundary?
Start by noticing how you are feeling. You might be experiencing the same feelings as another (such as sadness when they are sad), or you might be feeling something different (such as defensiveness when they are angry). To notice this is a good step forward in self-awareness and the more self-aware you become, the more confident you will become in your ability to provide support.
One way of still maintaining your connection to someone else without losing yourself is to visualise a force field (ie a boundary) between the two of you.
From your side of the force field, you can observe their emotion. If you then visualise going through the force field and imagine you are them, you will be able to feel their feelings just long enough to get an understanding of their experience.
You can come back through the force field into your own body at any time and you’ll see their emotion hasn’t taken you over. It is highly likely though, that by experiencing their feelings just for that short time, you’ll be able to feel compassionate empathy for them.
Compassion doesn’t involve feeling the pain of another as if it were our own to the degree that we are overwhelmed by it. Instead it triggers the feeling of wanting to support another to let go of their suffering because we care, not because we are suffering ourselves.
It takes time and practice to do this, so be patient (and compassionate) with yourself.
Some people are able to perceive and understand another person’s feelings without actually feeling those feelings at all. This is a type of empathy Ekman calls “cognitive empathy”. It can be helpful in situations like business negotiations. Often someone experiencing cognitive empathy can appear cold and detached and may be unlikely to want to help another.
There is no wrong or right kind of empathy but Eckman is clear that a resonance with another’s feelings is crucial to our relationships with our loved ones.
Solutions are not always the answer
If you default to offering solutions to someone experiencing painful emotions, be aware that trying to relieve someone’s pain in this way does not always serve them.
I remember a few years ago a dear friend of mine was keen to stop me hurting from a loss I had experienced. She would often listen to me express my feelings for just moments before she would interject with solutions and metaphorical pictures of lights at the end of tunnels. I knew she meant well, but I had to tell her that I wanted her know how I felt. It helped me feel less alone knowing she understood what I was going through.
Often the best support you can give is just to be with someone, showing compassion and care for them by listening and validating their feelings. They may not be ready to look at solutions or at ways to change their feelings.
With a vague awareness that polar bears can swim under ice, I had reassured my nephew that it was likely the polar bear was just looking for his dinner in the water, before getting out through a hole in the ice. He had thought about it and seemed satisfied with this explanation so his pain was short-lived.
With an adult though it might be a little more challenging to know what support is best and what you imagine someone wants may not be correct.
If you’re not sure, it may be best to ask.
If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by, or uncomfortable with, either your own or others’ emotions and find the above suggestions for building relationships difficult to implement, feel free to get in touch.