Empathy. What is it?
In many therapeutic models it is described as putting yourself in someone’s shoes.
My experience is saying ‘I know how you feel’ and you do. A recent situation reminded me about the power of empathy. A friend and neighbour had lost their grandparent, they cried when I spoke to them on the last day they visited their grandfather because of the pain he was in and the start of her feeling of loss. All day and many days after I was exactly back to the way I felt when I lost my grandmother.
A day of clients ahead of me, even though I didn’t find it appropriate to share how I felt at that point, I was aware of what I was feeling and taking care of myself on those days – recognising the loss I felt. To my friend saying clichés such as ‘time heals’, ‘it’s for the best’ were not an empathetic or indeed a real response. I told her to expect the pain, that her head would hurt – it’s the sharpest pain and you don’t know how to get through each day.
Many people avoid others when they don’t know what to say, but just a bit of contact makes all the difference. One of the most heartbreaking responses I heard from what I thought was one of my closest friend was: ‘what’s the point of crying?, you are hurting your grandma by doing that.’ Later she said she didn’t know what to say, but I wish she said that to me instead.
I have realised, in both my private and professional life what the difference is between an sympathetic response and an empathetic response. Empathy allows you to reach a deeper level of emotion – it gives you a shared connection.