It’s easy to gulp upon hearing the word ‘empathy’. We might either believe that empathy is impossibly difficult to do or that we’re already perfectionists at it. Though the truth may be completely different altogether.
What it Looks Like
That’s because empathy is both natural and learned. As babies, we recognized ourselves in those who cared for us, developing a sense of knowing who we are every time we resonated with our parents’ emotional states. Not only did we mirror them— they too tried to make sense of what we felt in our bodies and minds…and if our parents were competent enough at making sense of our emotions and responding to our emotions sufficiently in a way that managed to soothe us and make us feel seen, understood, and accompanied by their warm and safe presence, we will gradually and naturally find ourselves responding to others in such a way too.
What’s for sure is that how we were treated results in a cumulative effect: not having been attended to and validated, we lost a chance at receiving a firsthand back-and-forth experience of giving and receiving– not money, but attention, understanding, and a helpful response– which would have assisted us as adults by making us more attuned and emotionally responsive, inevitably beneficial not just for intimate and professional relationships but also towards the relationship we have with ourselves– imagine letting yourself feel fully and freely without feeling like you’re losing your mind because your core self feels intact… see that’s the power of empathy: when the sum of what we’re feeling and knowing deep inside our bodies is being acknowledged and contained, we are taught to embrace ourselves as a whole, whatever we’re like, and this makes any form of suffering easily distinguishable and welcomed (instead of being personalized, distorted, denied, rejected, or projected onto others). In other words, empathy becomes hard to do if we haven’t been recognized and appreciated as a human being in possession of our own unique cognitive and emotional responses, capable of feeling, hurting, and suffering. If we cannot and do not know how to be emotionally responsive to our own emotions, doing so for others remains out of the question.
For those of us who struggle with empathy a bit more, all started with caregivers who meant well but didn’t have the capacity nor desire to engage with us empathetically, most usually because there hadn’t been any figures who could model such empathetic behavioral responses to them throughout their lives. As a result, they themselves do not see and tolerate the whole of themselves and are always escaping, distorting, and finding an external source of esteem, comfort, and stability, which also makes providing these to others a true challenge. Add on the multiple pressures and responsibilities that adults have to deal with, finding time to review how their capacity for empathy just doesn’t make sense. Nonetheless, for as long as they haven’t come to terms with the lack of empathy they experienced and for as long as they haven’t tried to relearn ways to be relational and ways to manage their emotions and self-esteem, empathy remains elusive. It’s not just about abuse, neglect, criticism, and maltreatment; it’s also about what didn’t happen . So if empathy is a generational thing, it might take more effort for some of us to do it. Here are…
3 ways to have empathy:
1. Build your capacity for it
We can build our capacity for empathy by embodying what it is. It’s simply understanding another person’s experience, taking in their thoughts, feelings, perceptions, motives, needs, and desires, literally trying to see and feel things from their point of view . Can you do this when the situation calls for it, such as when someone comes to you in distress? Are you able to receive and contain; soak in and hold? To have others’ minds in mind?
This is not to say that we have to put aside our own feelings and desires. In fact, throughout hearing a person out, it’s great to be aware of how we’re reacting to what’s being shared and expressed so that we can simultaneously soothe ourselves if needed, and then return to the right headspace to be able to show and tell them that we are here, perceiving their emotions, resonating with those emotions, along with the associated perspectives revolving around those emotions felt so deeply (never lose yourself in the act of taking others into your mind). In short, we can train ourselves to have empathy by being in interaction. Whether we realize it or not, we’re already responding to others in a certain way, and our responses may either be more or less empathetic.
While being in interaction, try to pay more attention to what others are saying, how they might be feeling about what they are saying while they’re saying it, and what they might be trying to do to move towards getting their needs met and their issues resolved. Stay curious and imaginative, like a child who’s always wondering. Before you know it, your generous interest in someone’s mind might give them the courage to reach out simply because your empathy normalized their suffering.
2. Have tools at hand and practice using them
While embodying empathy in moments of interaction, we need tools. These tools are skills such as emotional regulation and stress management, practicing them intentionally in our times of crisis and need so that we effectively reduce our distress to a level that permits us to focus on others, in turn getting them too to utilize these tools, oops, we mean, skills.
Regulating emotions takes a lot of motivation and effort, especially for those with a history of complex trauma, in which co-regulation– key to being able to self-regulate– rarely or never took place. Co-regulation is a process “through which children develop the ability to soothe and manage distressing emotions and sensations from the beginning of life through connection with nurturing and reliable primary caregivers” . Put simply, if you hadn’t been informally educated by your parents on how to make sense of your feelings and sensations that arise together with your thoughts, you’d have to formally teach yourself how to do that as an adult, in which case, we’re here to help. Discover how to regulate your emotions here.
3. Put the humanity in it
Finally, another effective way to have empathy is to remind ourselves that we all need each other. No one is immune to harrowing life situations and displeasing circumstances that generate unpleasant emotions, and when we’re going through the motions in our moments of pain, restlessness, and heartbreak, the calming, understanding, and warm presence of another person creates emotional safety , restoring our aliveness and courage to hold on to our true feelings and what those feelings capture; our true selves. The point is that since we need each other (even at a biological level) , it makes sense for each of us to develop empathy because empathy makes us feel more connected, and that’s what’s healing .
Clearly, empathy is pivotal to human relationships. When there’s empathy, we understand others better, making it easier to get along with others. At the same time, we’ll also feel understood. Therefore, empathy really is a win-win situation in which everybody’s got each others’ backs. And there’s no finer way to live than to live knowing ‘you’ve got this’ because someone gets you. The only thing left to do next is to figure out how to actively tackle what ails you (whether that’s being achieved through discussing with friends or with a psychotherapist).
But first, before transforming any pain into an active solution, you must have been received and contained in the context of empathy.