How to Show True Empathy

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Empathy is the ability to understand another person's emotional state. Recognizing how you think and behave in response to others is essential for building stronger relationships and becoming more empathetic. Learn more about the definition of empathy and how to demonstrate it.


Definition of Empathy: What Is Empathy?

Empathy is derived from the Greek word "empatheia," which means "passion," and the German word "einfühlung," which means "feeling into something." It means understanding and feeling another person's emotions as if they were your own. In a broader sense, empathy is a cognitive and emotional skill that allows you to understand, relate to, and mutually share another person's experience in order to better understand their emotional pain.

Understanding the emotional state of others, according to psychologist Daniel Goleman, is one of the primary components of emotional intelligence. Mirror neurons in the brain, according to neuroscientists, activate empathetic emotional responses, allowing you to understand and feel the emotions of others.


The Two Kinds of Empathy

Experts in psychology distinguish two types of empathy:

1. Empathy for others' emotions: Emotional empathy, also known as affective empathy, refers to feelings triggered by another person's happiness or sadness. Emotional empathy, according to neuroscience, can mean that your own feelings mirror how the other person feels or that you experience discomfort when another person expresses suffering.

2. Cognitive empathy: Cognitive empathy, also known as perspective-taking, is based on the listener's ability to relate to another person's perspective without imposing their own experience, point of view, or biases. Cognitive empathy is defined by psychologists as a theory of mind—that is, thinking about another person's thoughts or perspectives without attribution of feelings or matching another person's emotional state.


Explained: Lack of Empathy

A person may lack human empathy, altruism, or pro-social behaviors for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to:

Autistic spectrum disorder (ASD): Some autistic people have difficulty reading facial expressions. People's emotions may be difficult to understand for those who cannot interpret facial expressions.

Blaming the victim: If a person expects fairness and justice, it may be difficult for them to feel empathy for victims of crimes and may make the cognitive choice to blame the victim in order to maintain their perceived view of the world.

Cognitive bias: Some people have cognitive biases that prevent them from understanding how others feel. Biases can manifest as the belief that, while external factors cause your own emotions, other people's emotional problems are the result of personal weakness.

Lack of connection: You may lack empathy if you believe that people who disagree with you do not feel the same way you do. Personal distress in the daily lives of people living in a different country far away, for example, may not elicit an empathetic response.

Personality disorders: such as borderline personality disorder, schizoid personality disorder, bipolar disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder can all have an impact on empathy skills.


How to Show True Empathy

Understanding another person's point of view builds trust, reduces conflict, and strengthens relationships. To improve your empathy and emotional intelligence, try the following:

1. Be open to criticism. When sharing your feelings, honesty and authenticity can encourage the other person to be honest with you.

2. Investigate your own biases. People typically believe that their behavior is the result of specific circumstances, whereas another person's behavior is a personality flaw. Understanding your biases will help you see how they limit your ability to empathize with others if you have opposing views. Find out more about cognitive bias.

3. Get to know other people. When you get to know someone well, you can better understand how they think and why they behave the way they do. Inquire about their lives and emotions, and try to understand your differences without passing judgment.

4. Put yourself in their place. Even if you disagree, imagining how the other person might feel in a given situation allows for understanding and empathy.

5. Pay attention without interrupting. Empathy entails paying complete attention to the person attempting to express their feelings without interrupting, arguing, or interjecting your opinion. Improve your listening skills.

6. Pay attention to body language and facial expressions. Even if the person is silent, their body language and facial expressions can reveal a lot about how they are feeling. Do they appear agitated? Sad? Use these indicators to help guide you when speaking with someone you want to empathize with. Learn more about reading body language.


Explained: Empathy Fatigue

Excessive empathizing can result in exhaustion, guilt, anxiety, and depression. Healthcare workers and caregivers, in particular, who witness suffering and death, may experience empathy fatigue if they become emotionally attached to the well-being of their patients.

Witnessing traumatic or disturbing events causes empathy fatigue as a defense mechanism, affecting your ability to care for others over time. You may feel socially isolated, emotionally numb, depressed, angry, self-blame, and unable to relate to others. Physical symptoms include exhaustion, headaches, nausea, insomnia, and substance abuse.


Examples of Empathy

Empathy is the ability to feel another person's pain as if it were your own. Here are three examples of when and how you might use empathy in your own life:

1. A direct parallel or similarity: "Believe it or not, I remember what it was like to be in high school—I have a lot of empathy for you trying to fit in." Empathy is demonstrated when you can directly relate to another person's experience and imagine how they feel.

2. A learned skill: Empathy is a skill that can be learned. While many people are born with the ability to empathize, others learn to do so by sitting with someone who is in distress. It's difficult to express sympathy when another person's grief becomes your own.

3. A sense of shared experience: "I've had my own mental health issues, so I have a lot of empathy for you." One of the key indicators of empathy is having a similar experience to another person. The more you share with another person, the more likely you are to feel empathy for them.

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