Perhaps you have heard people use the phrase “I feel you” as they listen to some heartfelt sharing from another. Perhaps you have used that shorthand expression for EMPATHY.
The dictionary definition for empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” That definition goes on to include that you can have this connection and understanding even when others have not fully explained their situation to you. In other words, you are tuned into the plights of others, and you can react in ways that show you understand what they are going through even when you don’t know all the details.
I can’t think of many other things more needed in our world today, full of fractures and divisions, than empathy. Clearly there are people with stories that need to be heard but even more important is to be able to genuinely say “I feel you” in response to them. And it goes beyond that. It’s part of a cycle so beautifully described in these words by Stephen Mattson:
“Imagination leads to empathy, empathy leads to understanding, understanding leads to action, action leads to experience, and experience leads to wisdom – which leads to even more imagination.”
Mattson notes that the cycle begins and ends with imagination because “When you can’t imagine, you can’t empathize, understand, or relate with the actions, struggles, pain, suffering, persecution, and trials of others — you become apathetic, unmoved, stoic, and inactive.”
The impact of our ability to empathize with others’ situations and experiences is huge. It begins with those closest to us and can ripple beyond. Can you imagine the impact if more of the decision-making at all levels were based on conscious efforts to imagine and empathize with the situations of all the people affected in a given situation? The lack of that is clear to us as we look around. As Charles M. Blow has said, “One doesn’t have to operate with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and understanding are sufficient.”
Practicing imagination and empathy also supports our own emotional and social wellness. How can being empathetic make you a happier, healthier, more well-rounded person?
You Can Be More Accepting of Others
When you have empathy, you recognize that everyone is entitled to their own experiences, that we are all different, and that you cannot change others. Acceptance of others’ differences, views, feelings, and thoughts means you do not judge them for these differences but instead are empathetic to how those differences impact their lives and experiences.
Empathy allows you to see others as unique instead of wrong, to value their perspectives, and to appreciate what you might be able to learn from others.
You Can Give Up Trying to Control Others’ Feelings
It is not possible to tell someone else how to feel, or to control others’ reactions. Everyone has a right to their own perspectives and emotions, and when you have empathy, you are able to see and appreciate this. This acceptance of others’ emotions is the key to empathy, and when you develop acceptance and empathy toward others, you have mastered a vital life skill.
Your Relationships Will Improve
When you have empathy, you learn how to treat other people with the care and compassion you wish others would use when they interact with you. Empathetic people also work to understand and respond to the needs of others, which they, in turn, will likely reciprocate with you.
Empathy helps you deal more effectively with interpersonal conflict, which means there will be less friction and strife with those you care for, and you can even learn how to better motivate those with whom you live and work.
You Can Share More Fully in Others’ Joy
Empathy does not have to be limited to understanding the challenges and turmoil of others. Empathy can also include understanding and responding to the joys and good events in others’ lives.
Learning to be happy for others is actually a skill you need to practice, as our brains are hard-wired to respond to others’ distress but naturally do not respond as strongly to others’ happiness. But, learning to do this not only helps you connect with others more fully, but it also can enhance your own perspective on your joys and blessings in life.
Empathy is your link to yourself as well as other people. Going far beyond sympathy, empathy is our ability to have the “I feel with” experiences regularly. Through imagination and personal experience, we are able to relate to others on a deeper level.
This skill is one that should be cultivated throughout one’s life, as it is essential for personal development. There are many books on the topic to explore, including some for children. Can you imagine the long term effect of having truly empathetic people in charge of our organizations and government. Cultivating this in ourselves and the younger generations can be a path to long term change.