On Empathy

What does it mean to be empathic? How can we use this way of being with others to resolve conflict and promote understanding whilst at the same time keeping ourselves emotionally safe? If too much or not enough empathy is a problem for us, how might counselling and psychotherapy help?
A Definition Of Empathy
The Cambridge English dictionary defines empathy as follows: ‘the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation’. Often, we talk of walking in another person’s shoes or seeing things from a different point of view to our own. Some of us seem to be naturally empathic, skilled at temporarily projecting ourselves into the world of another whereas others might struggle to step outside of our own perspective.
Inviting Empathy
I am sometimes asked how we might challenge people who seemingly block all attempts to examine conflict and relationship difficulties from any perspective other than their own. In short, how might we invite another to become more empathic. Here’s an example from my personal experience that I hope will illustrate the power of inviting empathy in practice.
Whilst out walking locally I came upon a minor road accident that had just happened. Two cars had collided at a notoriously nasty t-junction. A female driver had been turning right and had hit the car of a male driver who had right of way. Another male motorist who had witnessed the accident also stopped. Beyond being shaken, nobody was hurt but there was a small amount of damage to both cars.
As I arrived, the male driver whose car had been hit was repeatedly shouting and remonstrating at the female driver. It was at this point that the witness stepped in. Calmly and firmly, he said to the angry driver ‘how would you like it if this was your wife being treated in this way?’ There was a pause. To give him his due, the angry driver did seem to take on board what was being said. After a bit of blustering – I imagine to save face, and there is an element of shaming in this exchange – everybody calmed down and got on with the business of swapping contact numbers etc.
By inviting the angry driver to empathise, the witness had managed to take a lot of the heat out of the encounter. He could have joined in with the shouting but he chose a different, much more powerful way of diffusing the situation.
Too Much Empathy?
The vignette above illustrates a situation where there might not have been enough empathy, but is it possible to have too much empathy? For some of us, we may be so affected by, for example, another person’s distress that we are unable to keep hold of our own sense of self and end up becoming overwhelmed with not only our own but also the other person’s feelings.
In addition, in my mind empathy needs to have a limit. We might empathise with someone else’s situation but this does not mean that we should drop our own needs to completely accommodate the other person’s. We might try to understand better and show compassion whilst at the same time holding our own boundaries as to what behaviour in others we will tolerate, and what we will not.
How Might Counselling And Psychotherapy Help?
Improved empathy within relationships can reduce resentment, promote closeness and strengthen ties. If we find ourselves affected by our own lack of empathy or that of someone close to us, therapy can provide a safe space in which to explore the situation from different, more nuanced angles and perspectives. Here, we may find our own point of view is challenged, perhaps leading to a deeper understanding of others, or we experiment with inviting empathy in someone we are close to.
If over-empathising is the problem, we might need to consider whether our personal boundaries are in the right places and how we might learn to separate our own feelings from those of others.
Please note that mental health problems can both complicate and exacerbate relationship difficulties and their resolution.
If you live or work within reach of Brighton and Hove and my approach to psychotherapy and counselling interests you, please contact me via email or telephone 07585 910742 for more information and to arrange an initial consultation. Emailing in the first instance seems to work best.
Copyright Caroline Clarke, Private Practice Counselling and Psychotherapy in Brighton and Hove, Sussex.
Image courtesy of sattva at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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