Empathy Heals

In my many years as a therapist, I have noted that one of the defining factors that causes distress within couples is the lack of empathy.

Often what I see is couples who were once happy together become jaded and resentful. They move into an overwhelming negative place where they begin to feel that the one person who is supposed to understand them the most, is the person who understands them the least.

Rejection and abandonment take the place of safety and security. Where both partners once used to make each other feel good about one another, without the oxygenation of empathy they now each feel bad about themselves. This becomes a vicious cycle the couple gets locked into when both partners become emotionally reactive to one another and lose the ability for empathy.

Of course, the issue of empathy is not unique to couples. It is also relevant to communities and cultures, as demonstrated in our society right now. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement asserts and encourages empathy for citizens seeking justice who have historically experienced systemic racial discrimination and disparities.

Social psychologists have long researched the phenomenon of an “in” group and an “out” group in societies. People may identify positively one group that they perceive as the “in” group while disparaging another group that they perceive as the “out” group.

We see political divides each year and with each election cycle. Fractious parties often argue over “how” to move the country forward while discounting one another as “anti-American” or extremist. They use inflammatory language and often shame or demean groups and individuals, not just their ideas.

Without empathy we lack the glue that holds us together— not just political parties, couples or groups, but all humans. Empathy is the healing ingredient that binds us together. That empathy, mixed with a dose of compassion and a tablespoon of validation, creates a harmonious recipe for a communal table where everyone can gather, partake and contribute.

The Importance of Empathy

In understanding why empathy is important, we first need to distinguish between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy is when you feel for someone, but you don’t necessarily feel with them. Sympathy is standing outside the person’s perspective and saying, “I feel your pain.”

When someone stubs their toe, we have sympathy for them. We understand how they feel because we’ve been there, but we aren’t necessarily feeling with them. Sympathy is not wrong or bad, but it doesn’t bind us to others. Sympathy doesn’t connect us the way empathy does.

Empathy, on the other hand, looks and feels different. According to Theresa Wiseman (1995), who conducted research on empathy, there are 4 factors that come into play when we emphasize with others.

1. The first factor is being able to “see” the other person’s perspective. Being able to “stand in another person’s shoes” and “look at the world through their eyes” are key components of empathy.

2. Secondly, having a non-judgmental attitude while standing in the other person’s perspective is crucial. Understanding difference begins with being curious about what seems novel or strange, rather than being judgmental. Curiosity invites us to understand, whereas being judgmental pulls us away from understanding.

3. The third factor is understanding another’s feelings. This is perhaps the most crucial part of empathy: allowing ourselves to feel what another is feeling. This is also the hardest part of empathy. Many people erect defenses to feeling others’ pain, hurt, sorrow or shame.

4. The final factor is communicating the understanding. Without some form of effective communication, our partner, other groups, or whole communities, can’t know that we understand.

The Development of Empathy

We are hardwired for empathy, but that doesn’t mean we automatically express empathy as a child. Research suggests that newborns as early as 18 to 72 hours after birth can respond to a caretaker’s distressed look. However, building empathy is more a skill developed through a series of experiences and that matures over time.

If we take, for example, the four factors that encompass empathy, they must be modeled and taught from a young age, while continuing to develop over time. When a child is young and in distress, that child will come to the primary caretaker with an urgent need to be soothed. The caretaker, in turn, helps the child to make sense of the hurt, expressing in words and tone of voice that they understand why the child is hurting emotionally. Then the caretaker expresses the cognitive perspective around the problem, helps the child begin to problem solve, or even just offers words of wisdom by being a bigger, stronger adult.

Finally, by the caretaker communicating all of this and affirming the child’s emotions, the child begins to realize they are not alone in the world and that there are others who can understand them, see them, and hear them. The child begins to realize they are a person worthy of an empathic response. Over time, they begin to internalize these attitudes and then they begin to express them outwardly towards others.

This process will look simplistic when they are younger. A child may give up half their sandwich to another child if they forgot their lunch - but even in this simple way empathy is still present. With maturity, that empathy may be demonstrated in a similar but more complex fashion, such as buying lunch for another person or contributing time, talent or money to serve others in need.

The Neuroscience of Empathy

When we are feeling strong emotion, we are working out of a part of our brain called the amygdala. This structure is housed deep in the middle part of the brain and sits under the right hemisphere, which is more feelings based, creative, non-linear and non-verbal.

When we experience emotional hurt, sadness, fear, shame and guilt, we are working from the amygdala area (emotional center) of our brain.

If the emotion is strong enough, then we exceed the limits of our window of tolerance. This “window” is the area in which we can utilize ou