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Empathy is a person’s ability to meet another person need to feel understood, heard, and seen.

Authors Maia Szalavitz and Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD write the following quite in their book about empathy “Born for Love”: “The essence of empathy is the ability to stand in another’s shoes, to feel what it’s like there. Your primary feelings are more related to the other person’s situation than your own.”

To practice empathy, one must dig deep into their own emotive experience in order to practice an understanding of a fellow human’s emotive experience. For example, if a friend is experiencing sadness at the passing of a beloved pet, the friend offering empathy must be able to dig into her own experience of sadness (even if she’s never experienced the loss of a beloved pet) to be able to thoughtfully and compassionate connect to and validate her friend’s emotions.

If we are unable to identify and validate our own emotive experience, it is very difficult to offer empathy to another person.

Empathy vs. Sympathy

In practice, it can be easy to confuse sympathy and empathy. Also, it can be easy to slip into what is actually sympathy as you are trying to be empathetic. This may happen for many reason, including feeling disconnected from the person you are trying to practice empathy with, your own frustration, fatigue, or fear, a discomfort with allowing a loved one to feel a difficult emotion, or your own discomfort with allowing yourself to feel a difficult emotion. Sometimes the emotion of your loved one triggers unresolved issues in your own life or circumstances/feelings that are painful to imagine yourself going through.

Four Components of Empathy

“Brene Brown on Empathy vs. Sympathy,” an article published by Psychology Today, lists these four components of having and expressing empathy:

  1. To be able to see the world as others see it

  2. To be nonjudgmental

  3. To understand another’s feelings

  4. To communicate your understand of that person’s feelings

Review the list above carefully and notice which of the four comes most naturally to you, and which one is most difficult for you. This week practice giving yourself and others the one that you notice to be most difficult.

Three Subtypes of Empathy

Here are three subtypes of empathy to consider: cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and compassionate empathy.

Cognitive empathy is about connecting to another person’s thought patterns and ways of thinking. It’s practicing awareness about what another person might be thinking. Cognitive empathy is valuable for connecting with another person, motivating them, helping them to feel better understood, and to normalize and validate their perspective. Opening yourself up to another person’s way of thinking can do wonders, particularly in our current polarized climate. Practicing cognitive openness, flexibility and perspective-taking deepens your own internal experience as well as strengthens the connection you can have with others.

Emotional empathy is probably the one you most naturally think of – connecting with, feeling another person’s emotions. You may have heard someone describe themselves as an “empath,” this means they commonly and fully feel the emotions of those around them.

Compassionate empathy is the draw to action. Generally, you experience first the cognitive and emotional empathy, and are then drawn to do something to help – to support, to provide, to advocate, etc. Using the information from the first two kinds of empathy, you begin to asses what kind of support you feel your loved one is needing – A hug? Verbal validation? Silence/space to feel their emotions? A reminder that you care for them? An act of service?

Empathy, like most worthwhile pursuits, takes a lot of practice, and we are constant students, but it is well worth the investment.

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