Amanda Gregory, LCPC, EMDR Practitioner
Empathy is one of the most powerful ways we can connect with others. Alfred Adler, founder of the school of individual psychology, wrote, “Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.” The experience of stepping into someone else’s shoes without judgment and letting ourselves feel what they’re feeling is vital to experiencing intimacy in our relationships. But often it isn’t easy.
Empathy can be difficult to achieve if you disagree, if you feel you’ve been wronged, or if you’re in conflict with someone. In fact, feeling empathy for a particular person can sometimes feel impossible. For example, if someone cuts me off in traffic, I find it difficult to step outside of my own frustration to consider their experience. It’s important to remember that empathy is all about connection; it’s not agreement, forgiveness, or a way to excuse another’s actions. Empathy allows us to improve our emotional connection and intimacy with others and, in the long run, our connection to ourselves.
People usually learn and practice the skill of empathy while relating to others in pairs or groups. But there are also ways to practice empathy on your own. Building your empathetic abilities will serve you well in interactions with others, especially in times of conflict when feeling empathy is more difficult.
Here are two simple exercises to try:
Empathy for fictional characters. Identify a fictional character you don’t like. This character can be from a movie, a TV show, a book, or another source. Now try to imagine why they act the way they do. You might have to make up a story if you don’t have all the facts. Imagine what they’ve been through and how they feel. Truly get inside them. For example, as a girl, I despised the character Nelly from the TV show “Little House on the Prairie.” Nelly was a child of the richest family in town. She was a spoiled bully who rarely showed any positive qualities. But if I try, I can imagine what it must have been like to be Nelly. Her mother demanded perfection. Her father rarely protected her from her mother’s demands and anger. Both her parents were constantly embarrassing her in public, and she never seemed to have any friends. I can empathize with how lonely she must have felt. I can understand that she might have bullied others in order to feel in control. She might have been mimicking the actions of her mother, or maybe she saw this as her only way to interact with other children. Now, looking back on the show, I feel a connection to Nelly.
Empathy for strangers. Focus on someone you don’t know but have encountered briefly with a negative outcome—maybe someone who cut you off in traffic or shoved past you on the sidewalk. Now try to explain why they acted that way. Avoid judgments such as “They’re rude” or “They’re selfish.” Instead, focus on what human circumstance could have caused their actions. Were they late for work and already on thin ice with their boss? Did they get into an argument with their partner this morning that left them feeling hurt and distracted? Maybe they lost a family member last week and today was their first day back at work. Remember, empathy is about connection. It’s not the same as agreement, forgiveness, or making excuses for someone’s behavior.
These exercises can improve your ability to experience empathy. The next step is applying these same skills to your own relationships.
If you need help experiencing or expressing empathy, you might want to consider participating in individual or couples therapy. Contact Symmetry Counseling to schedule an appointment today.