Empathy: What Is It?

Lets think back to a time where something terrible happened in your life; maybe the loss of a loved one, abuse, divorce, loss of a job, etc. Do you remember feeling that bone-deep craving to talk to someone who could really understand what you were going through? Someone who wasn’t going to try and “fix” the problem, but instead, someone who would let you talk, feel and express yourself? Someone who could help you to not feel alone in your pain, someone who could shoulder the pain with you?

In that moment, you were craving empathy. Empathy, unfortunately, can sometimes be hard to find in other people just as it can be hard to express in our own lives. It is a skill that most of us have to learn along the way. Sure, there are those people who seem to be naturally empathic, but in reality, most people have to work at it.

The Merriam-Webster definition of Empathy is the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

Let’s break this definition down a bit so it’s easier to understand.

The action of understanding. Who really thinks of “understanding” as an actual action? I think this goes to show that understanding is not a natural response and is, instead, an action that we must actively put effort into. How often do we find ourselves in a situation where someone is going through something that we have no experience dealing with? In that moment, we have to consciously work at trying to understand what that person is going through. Empathy requires us to figuratively put on someone else’s shoes and walk around in them.

Being aware of, being sensitive to. How do things come to our awareness? Are we only aware of the things that are announced to us? This makes me think of the weather. Are we only aware of storms brewing because the meteorologist tells us? I think not. I think we can walk outside and see the cloudy sky, we feel the cooler temperature, we notice the slight breeze and can sometimes hear the distant rumbling. No meteorologist has to tell us that a storm is coming in that instance. We have become accustomed to knowing what to look for when a storm is coming and with that, we are now more aware of and sensitive to the changes in weather that signify a storm. Now, let’s apply this to people. Normally, we can observe a person’s outward appearance or behavior and can tell what emotions they may be experiencing. For instance, if a person is ranting, raving and yelling we would probably guess that they are angry. If a person is crying and sniffling, we would probably guess they are sad. If a person is smiling and talking cheerfully, we would guess they are happy. It’s easier to tell how a person is feeling when these outward signs are present. Empathy requires us to be aware of and sensitive to a person’s emotions without those outward signs. So that leads to the question of how do we do this? Just like the weather, people have “tells,” like in poker. A “tell” is when someone does some sort of small thing that tells other people whether or not they have a good hand. For example, a person may rub their upper lip to hide a smile when they have winning hand. The rubbing of their upper lip is what we would call a “tell.” Back to emotions: people have “tells” when it comes to their emotions. Maybe they furrow their eyebrows when they’re angry, maybe they tap their foot when they’re impatient, maybe they bite their lip when they’re upset. When we are trying to be empathic, we pay attention to the small “tells” instead of the larger, outward signs. If we are able to intervene with a person before those outward signs are present we can make them feel more understood and supported. It can be so nice when a person comes up to you and asks you if you’re okay, not because you’re crying your eyes out, but because they clued into your emotions well before you really showed them.

VHYPERLINK “http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vicarious”icariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present. This is the part about Empathy that most people struggle with the most. Empathy can be painful for the one experiencing it. We open ourselves up to the feelings, thoughts and experiences of another person, which in turn can cause a whole host of emotions for us. The best example I can think of is when a good friend of mine lost someone very close to her. While I did not have a relationship with the person who died, I did have a relationship with my friend. As she talked to me about memories and the fears of going on in this life without her loved one, my throat grew tight, my stomach ached and my head hurt. In that moment, I was vicariously experiencing the emotions and even the physical symptoms of my friend’s pain. I, of course, wasn’t feeling it to the extent my friend was, but I definitely had a glimpse into what she was dealing with.

Without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner. Here is the trickiest piece about Empathy. This part is basically saying that we will vicariously experience the feelings and thoughts of another person WITHOUT them having to tell us specifically what it is they are feeling and thinking. For instance, in my earlier example with my friend who had lost her loved one, she did not specifically tell me the type of sadness and grief she was experiencing. She did not list the thoughts she was having, yet I was able to experience some of those things with her because of empathy. This portion of the definition is basically telling us that we shouldn’t need the outward signs, the detailed explanations or the actual experience in order to feel empathy for another person.

I suppose you can look at empathy as emotional rabbit ears. We all remember the rabbit ear antennas our televisions used to have in order to get a signal. Well, empathy is kind of like those rabbit ears. There are emotional signals coming off of people each and every day and if your emotional rabbit ears are positioned right, you can pick up that signal and tune in to what people are feeling, thinking and/or experiencing. Thus, deepening and improving the quality of your relationships with others by allowing those you care about to feel understood and supported by you.