Communication — 29 October 2003
Empathy strengthens relationships

Empathy, the capacity to feel and understand another person’s emotional state, is needed for love, caring and close human connection. It is also the basis for a decent society. As desirable and beneficial as empathy is, its use is not sufficiently emphasized.

At times, people confuse empathy with pity. Pity is not usually used between equals. There may even be a judgement in the expression of this emotion. “I pity this woman who is being taken advantage of by her friends.”

The implication is that the woman is ill equipped to know that she is being abused, or that she is too weak to protect herself from those who are using her. The speaker may have a condescending attitude toward this woman.

Pity does not serve either party well. The pitied person is discounted, the person feeling pity is falsely empowered. Pity is appropriate for an injured pet — not a mate.

In contrast, empathy does not come from a stance of superiority — but from equality. The empathic person is able to imagine the pain or joy of another individual and is able to be compassionate. Empathy is the cornerstone of intimacy.

People who receive empathy from others —report feeling validated, supported and connected. Having someone else understand the nature of their trouble reduces their pain and suffering or increases their pleasure. A person receiving empathy feels enriched, loved and understood.

Empathy is a complex emotion that requires some logical understanding. The capacity for feeling empathy is innate, but it must be supported and practiced through words and actions. Just feeling someone’s pain contributes little, being empathic by showing concern and offering kind words or actions — creates connection and intimacy.

From an early age, children should be encouraged to feel and act empathetically. Children learn best not by lectures about being “nice” and “not nice,” but by reaching their own conclusions through responses to parental questions.

For example: “When you hit Jimmy on the head with the toy truck, what do you think he felt?” (“Do you remember how you felt when you fell and skinned your knee?”) “What do you think he needed to feel better? “(“What helped you when you were hurt?)” “What do you think you can do next time?”

Children are very receptive to being taught empathic behaviors. Most of all, children learn by imitating your empathic conduct.

Some people are gifted with quick empathy. Others may shy away from it because it is emotionally draining. “I have enough problems of my own, if I feel other people’s woes, I will become depleted.” It is as though there is only a limited amount of compassion available to them. Those who believe this choose to reserve their emotional strength for themselves.

People also hold the misconception that intense, prolonged, or deep pain may be destructive to them. They marvel at other people who deeply empathize with suffering in the world and react to them with either admiration or scorn.

In order to feel empathy for another person’s pain or joy, one needs to dispense, at least temporarily, with one’s own concerns. Partners who do not feel safe enough in their relationship find it difficult to forgo their own needs in favor of their mates. This interferes with their ability to be empathic. Not having one’s pains and joys shared by a mate —is a huge loss. When empathy is not fluid between lovers, intimacy stagnates.

Empathy is also the source of kindness. Many loving deeds are born out of people’s ability to sense the needs of others. Couples who are tuned into the experiences, feelings, needs and wants of each other, speak about them and act accordingly — describe their connection as a great one. Those who refrain from empathic curiosity and expressions, lead less satisfying lives.

Conversely, the greatest evil deeds done by human beings to others become possible because of “depersonalization,” which is the process of regarding the victims as sub-humans. In other words, the evil doers are incapable of empathy for their victims since they cease to see them as equal human beings. Some of these people were themselves raised with cruelty and learned to disconnect from their innate ability for empathy.

Empathy must be taught, modeled, practiced, rewarded and fostered to raise decent human beings capable of kindness towards each other. Unfortunately, this essential trait and skill is not universally regarded as essential for all people.

To increase empathic behavior:

  • Realize that empathy is an essential ingredient of being a decent individual, having loving relationships and creating a moral society.
  • Practice your empathy regularly with the people around you. Listen to their concerns and joys, affirm their feelings, support their actions and make them feel understood and valued.
  • Understand that empathy is required for healthy love and intimacy.
  • If you are a parent, begin to reinforce empathic behavior in your children early. Appreciate them for any behavior that exhibits empathy and caring for others.
  • Model adult behaviors of kindness and consideration for others, so your children will learn to emulate your ways.
  • Speak out or take action if you observe cruel or insensitive behavior toward others.
  • Practice empathy by thinking of other people’s life circumstances and imagining yourself in their position.
  • In your relationship, attentively listen to the emotions behind your partner’s words. Validate your mate’s feelings and concerns with acceptance and empathy. Greater intimacy will follow.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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