We root for the underdog.
We have been there. Maybe we have felt like a “less than” in some way before, too.
We have been down on our luck, on the losing side, not picked for the team.
We have suffered, felt alone, been heart-broken and grieved.
We can all connect on some level to someone else’s pain. It has been our pain at one time as well, or we have simply known pain of some kind.
That ability to connect is Empathy. Empathy is the understanding that derives from that connection.
Empathy begets compassion. It is the natural expression of understanding and the desire to alleviate another’s pain.
Empathy is among the philosophical origins of the Golden Rule: We treat others how we would wish to be treated if we were in their shoes.
We best connect with those feelings with which we are familiar. We won’t always understand another person’s pain or experience, yet we can still connect. We can still engage in Empathy by making an effort to understand and acknowledge that we have no foundation of understanding─ but we want to do so.
With the element of Empathy, we err on the side of caution in gauging another’s pain. We understand that they may have endured greater pain than we will understand. They are unique, and so is their pain.
When we Empathize, we validate. We let others know that they matter and that their pain and their experience matters to us. When we empathize, someone else’s pain becomes our pain; we want that pain to stop. Empathy is manifested in the world via actions taken to aid and comfort another.
Sometimes we can only be present to the pain of another. Other times we lead the charge for large-scale generational and societal change.
With Empathy, we always ask:
What would I do if we were in their shoes?
How would I want to be treated if that had happened to me?
What would I be feeling if I went through that?
How might I better understand that person’s experience?
With Empathy, we give others room to grow, because that is what we would like if we were in their shoes. We do not judge them or give unsolicited advice. We do not dismiss their experience or try to change their minds. We serve as a source of strength and comfort rather than direction.
Empaths and Sociopaths
Empathy can be said to exist on a spectrum. At one end, we have the “Empaths,” who are very connected to the feelings and energies of others. They feel other people’s emotions and are affected by the “vibe” of a person, in a room or of a situation. They can be overwhelmed at times, especially when they take on and absorb too much of the energies of others. Empaths can learn to have boundaries and not let other people’s energies negatively affect them, though. Empaths are often drawn to help others or alleviate their pain. Empaths often become healers of some sort in the world. They are holistic healers, social justice advocates, religious leaders, environmental scientists and preservationists, childcare professionals, nurses, teachers, counselors, yoga instructors and so forth.
On the other end of the spectrum are sociopaths. These individuals are characterized by their pervasive lack of empathy for others. They seem to lack the capacity to care about or relate to the feelings of others. They see other people as objects from which they can extract some type of benefit for themselves. They cannot connect, and may only be able to feign connection to others as a matter of using them for their own purposes. They may, in fact, experience disdain or enjoyment at another’s pain, or they could just be ambivalent to the fact.
Sociopaths are wounded souls. They have a tough time accessing Empathy and simply have much work to do in that arena. Many people who have trouble manifesting Empathy were severely emotionally wounded at a young age, or were raised in a manner where it was too uncomfortable to feel and express emotions. They didn’t get to feel their own emotions, let alone relate to those of others.
Empaths can often feel wounded, too. Their wounds, however, have made them sensitive to those of others. Empaths will generally have an awareness of their own wounds and can feel and process them as a method of remedy. Once they do that, they can go on to help heal others as they learn to maintain their own safe boundaries and manage what can be an overwhelming compassion for others.
Most of us reside somewhere in the middle of the Empathy Spectrum, with our true nature swaying to the Empathic side. I believe some of us are naturally inclined to be even more empathic as an expression of our Truth. All of us, however, have the ability to become more empathic as we work towards evolving spiritually.
Scoring Low on the Empathy Card
I had a friend who had to undergo an intensive psychological assessment as part of the process of securing a high-level sales job. He told me that he scored low on Empathy— yet he got the job! “That was what they wanted!” he said. “I guess too much Empathy for a buyer on the part of the seller can kill the deal.”
My friend was not a psychopath. He was a very nice guy who tended to be light, carefree and not too emotional about anything. However, the fact that he scored low on Empathy was extremely bothersome to him. I considered this a good sign.
If you are someone who also scores “low” on the Empathy test, what can you do?
First of all, you can have Self-awareness about it and you can care about your own Empathy level. As we practice Self-awareness and self-Empathy about this aspect of ourselves, our score regarding Empathy will go up. We are automatically going to be more mindful of our Empathy in the world and seek to rectify lack when we first empathize with ourselves in a healthy way. Often times, a difficulty in getting in touch with the feelings of others signals a difficulty in getting in touch with our own feelings.
To increase our Empathy, we have to work on being comfortable feeling and expressing our own emotions. Conditional phrases such as “boys don’t cry” or “suck it up” add to the shutting down of emotions, especially for men. By allowing ourselves to feel our emotions, we open ourselves up to others on all levels. Sometimes as children, the perceived “perfection” of the family was more important than individual expression. This conditioning must be unraveled in order for true Empathy to emerge. Unresolved trauma must be explored. Sometimes the difficulty in expressing our own emotions is really fear that the floodgates will open, resulting in an uncontrollable release of emotion. Many individuals, families and even whole cultures have the unhealthy dynamic of contained emotion.
We need to open the container of our own feelings in order to connect to the experiences and feelings of others.
Empathy Safety Zone
In expanding our Empathy, we have to look at what the “Safety Zone” for Empathy might be for us. For example, you may know some people who can empathize with animals or children or who even cry at movies, yet they may have difficulty expressing Empathy outside of those zones. In Empathy, we are opening our hearts and emotions. When this is done for what our society deems as the “vulnerable,” or for a character in a movie, there is little or no danger of rejection or harm coming from those emotions. By staying within our Safety Zone, we are maintaining a position of superiority and control over others and, supposedly, over ourselves.
In contrast, when we make ourselves vulnerable and open to facing rejection (or open to triggering unresolved issues of our own), we may not feel in control. We restrain our Empathy as a matter of maintaining control and limiting emotional exposure.
Having Empathy and compassion for the vulnerable is appropriate, and signifies an underlying capacity for connection with others. Empathy limited to such Safety Zones is disabling, however, and limits the potential for personal development and expansion of Empathy to include all.
“Listening with Positive, Warm Regard”
Listening is a basic skill that builds Empathy. When we truly listen to another person expressing how they feel, we are allowing their words to connect with us and trigger our Empathy. We gain greater understanding, and this allows for greater precision in our Empathy so that we might connect in a more exact manner on the feelings being discussed.
In listening to another, we aren’t just waiting for our turn to talk. We aren’t formulating our response to what they are saying while they are talking, either. We are 100% present and not distracted by gadgets or even our own thoughts. We are fully focused on what they are trying to communicate to us in the moment, and we are validating what is being said as appropriate.
There is a famous psychologist named Carl Rogers who developed an entire approach to counseling and healing based on Empathy. A mainstay of his teachings was getting counselors to listen to their client with a genuine mindset of “positive, warm regard.” Empathy is listening with positive, warm regard.
With this approach, we listen in a manner that conveys that we are “prizing” what the person is saying without judgment. We are 100% present without allowing the distraction of gadgets or external phenomena. We are not formulating a response to what we are hearing while listening. We maintain eye contact to the point that it is comfortable for both parties. We confirm our attention through our body language and modest verbal acknowledgements. We can reflect back what we have heard as a matter of confirmation understanding. We are careful not to presume total understanding by equating another’s experience to ours. We are seeking to validate their emotional experience. We careful not to placate, patronize or offer up immediately perceived solutions. We give Respect.
With Empathy, we can feel the Joy of others. This is a safe and Healing expression of Empathy. We can feel the Joy of a parent for their child’s accomplishments. We can feel Joy at the reunion of lovers. Our capacity of feeling for others can be expanded by basking in the Empathy of joyous moments in general. If we have difficulty with this, such as feelings of jealousy when a friend gets a promotion or finds a new love, this is an indication of the need for greater personal exploration about these issues within ourselves.
Feeling the Light
Empathy is a form of Communion. Empathy is connection to others. We are all Divine. When we are in touch with our own Divinity, we can sense and feel the Divinity of others. When we Empathize with the Divinity of others, we are with our tribe, i.e. the people/souls with whom we are supposed to be. We are with people from whom we will grow. Their Divinity fans the flame of our Divinity, and we feel it.
Conversely, we can sense when others are disconnected from their Divinity and are in the greatest need of compassion.
When we Empathize with another, sometimes we can also sense the pain and/or chaos within them. At the same time, we may feel a cry for accountability coming from within that person, possibly due to an addiction of some type. We ourselves may have had times when our life was full of pain and possibly out of control. We may even have been in an addictive cycle. What we wanted and needed then, without being able to express it, was someone to help us heal and to hold us accountable. We might have also wanted someone to show us that we mattered enough to put effort towards holding us accountable.
Truly helping someone get out of pervasive emotional pain requires consistent compassion, validation and Self-awareness. Making discernments between feeling a cry for help and our desires to either just let go or avoid the conflict of accountability is difficult, but necessary.
With Tough Love, we practice Empathy with boundaries. We can feel others’ pain while we protect ourselves and enforce accountability. In this way, we show the person in need that they matter enough to receive Tough Love. Otherwise, we might be further enabling their harmful behaviors.
The way of the miracle-worker is to see all human behavior as one two things: either love, or a call for love.” -Marianne Williamson
Empathy as a Trigger
At times, our Empathy for others is easily triggered. We feel their pain acutely. We may come to tears or have other bodily reactions in the face of another’s pain. This Empathy, upon careful discernment, may feel disproportionate to the situation. In this case, we are not only empathizing with another, we’re likely triggering unresolved feelings of our own. The same kind of pain that the other person is feeling is still residing within us— and it is asking to be healed.
Tracking what triggers disproportionate Empathy is important to our own Healing path and can lead to healthier, purer forms of Empathy towards others in the future.
The Golden Rule
The Golden Rule states that we should treat other people how we would want to be treated if we were in their position. It is a moral code that spans time, cultures and religions. It is a fantastic guide for practicing Empathy.
The Golden Rule opens the heart for us to wonder how we would like to be treated if we were in another’s shoes:
How would I like to be treated if I were homeless?
How would I like to be treated if I had fallen into drug addiction?
How would I like to be treated if I had a painful medical condition and no access to health care?
How would I like to be treated if I were a veteran suffering from PTSD?
How would I want to be treated if I were gay?
How would I want to be treated if I were transgender?
How would I like to be treated if I were a child living in a gang-dominated neighborhood?
How would I like to be treated if I were a person of a class of people historically discriminated against?
How would I like to be treated if I were a refugee, seeking asylum?
How would I like to be treated if I were elderly and alone?
How would I want to be treated if I needed forgiveness?
Would I like being bullied?
Would I like being gossiped about?
Would I like being yelled at?
Would I like being shunned or ignored because I was different in some way?
Would I like being lied to by someone I was close to?
With Empathy, we Wonder. We seek understanding. We ask the questions.
We ask: How can I help another person grow?
The Monkey Wrench
The monkey wrench in the application of the Golden Rule (and in Empathy in general) is that the desire to treat others as one would like to be treated is based on the desire to have one’s own self treated rightly, and the idea that one deserves to be treated rightly.
Empathy is therefore built upon a strong foundation of self-love. We cannot treat others with kindness and understanding while we feel undeserving of such care ourselves. So don’t forget to apply the Golden Rule to yourself. Treat yourself as any child of God should be treated─ because you are one!
Empathy for Evil-Doers
It is a great challenge to empathize with or show compassion to “evil-doers.” How can we understand someone who has harmed others in cruel ways? We can neither relate to nor connect to feelings and actions that we don’t understand.
However, we can still seek understanding of all of the factors in life that led them to do what they did. We may realize in any given case that “they know not what they do.” We may realize that they have been incredibly wounded, that they lack conscious and or that they are mentally ill.
Compassion is not always easy. Our own feelings of vengeance, hurt, anger and disgust may override and overrule compassion. Yet compassion is the higher calling in all cases. Seeking understanding is the higher calling as well. Making the effort to understand, no matter how difficult it may be, is our duty— if only as a matter of preventing future pain caused by them. Compassion also does not exclude accountability. We can try to understand evil-doers and they can still receive judicial consequences for their actions.
Sympathy and Empathy
Sympathy is, at best, an act of Generosity. It could be a simple Prayer or Blessing. With sympathy, we are wishing others well and expressing sorrow for another’s situation— without the connection of Empathy. Sympathy can just be feeling sorry for someone, or our soul may be touched. There may be a great distance between our emotional state and theirs. With Empathy, by contrast, souls connect. We gain understanding, and the emotional connection that comes with it.
With Empathy, we are often able to neutralize feelings of irritation and even hatred towards others. Spend some time thinking about a person who you consider yourself to “hate.” Why do you hate this person? Let’s say one reason is that they talk too much. First ask yourself, in the interest of increasing your empathy for that person, why do they talk so much? Is it because they haven’t been heard in the past? Are they trying to impress you with their knowledge, or their charisma? Are they simply uncomfortable in silence? Are they lonely, and perhaps not given many opportunities to talk to others?
Now take a look at your own feelings. Why do you hate it when people talk too much? Is it because you are afraid that you won’t have a chance to be heard? Is it because you are not interested in what others have to say? You may find that your response indicates some internal work to be done; or, you might not. You may even discover that what you thought was bothering you is not the true root of the problem. For instance, perhaps the issue with someone you know is not “They talk too much” but instead “They talk too much about their self.” In other words, the issue is not the amount of time they spend talking but the subject matter. You wish this person were less self-absorbed.
You cannot change the extent to which someone else is self-absorbed, but by better understanding your own objection, you bring yourself one step closer to understanding the person. Why do they talk so much about themselves? Are they seeking approval? Are they trying to meet a social expectation, matching other people’s stories with their own?
By reflecting in this way, you will likely find that you and the object of your hatred are not so very different. Perhaps they are lonely, and you have been lonely, too— so instead of resenting them for taking up so much space at social functions, you can feel happy for them that they are having an opportunity to socialize, knowing how infrequently that happens and how hard it can be for anyone to experience long periods of isolation.
Even if you don’t arrive at an answer, reflecting on the possibilities for someone’s behavior, such as a past wound of not being heard or a current struggle with insecurity which prompts them to boast, will alleviate your negative feelings towards that person and bring their spirit closer to yours.
Empathy is inherently an act of Love that leads to Communion with another.
Self-awareness and Mindfulness, as well as self-love, form a healthy foundation for Empathy to grow within you and will help you remember the Golden Rule.
With Respect, we see the Divinity in others so that we may connect with it. We see their redeeming value as a Divine creation regardless of their actions so that we might help them as necessary.
With Empathy, we can feel the Joy of others. Joy is a safe and Healing expression and practice of Empathy.
Forgiveness, as something we seek for ourselves towards ourselves or another, is overtly an act of Empathy.
Non-judgment, Acceptance, Nurturance, Wonder, Intuition, Divinity, and Service are all connected to Empathy as well.
- Take an Inventory of your Empathy. Examine where you stand on the Empathy spectrum.
Determine areas where Empathy seems accessible. Engage it, and nurture its growth in these areas— for instance, if you feel a natural Empathy towards the homeless or hungry, look for opportunities in your area to benefit these communities, such as homeless shelters or a food pantry. If you have a natural Empathy for a friend of yours who has a particular problem, check in with that friend on a regular basis and let them determine what the day will look like. They might want a fun distraction, someone to talk to about the problem, or just a relaxing night in, with no pressure.
- Look for times when Empathy seems appropriate, but may be absent. Take the time to explore a greater understanding of the situation and the pain and emotions that might most logically be present, and attempt to access those emotions within. If you cannot find Empathy, when it seems it should be present, imagine yourself or a loved one in the situation being faced. How might you then feel? Remind yourself of the other’s shared Divinity. Watch for instances of “mechanical empathy” or charity given to others without emotion.
- Explore your ability to express your own emotions. Do you tend to contain them? If so, ask yourself (in a Non-judgmental way) why you do that. Did you experience trauma of any sort of as a child? Were you raised in a situation where it was not safe or comfortable to express your emotions? Have other life experiences caused you to close off that part of yourself? Seek counseling as necessary to process unresolved childhood emotions and learn to express emotions.
- Spend a day jotting down all of the emotions you feel, as a way of tracking them. Use “I feel” statements in expressing yourself to others and as a manner of internal dialogue, as this also helps to track feelings. Look over your lists as much as suits you (i.e. weekly, monthly) and see if there are negative feelings that pop up over and over again, waiting to be addressed— or positive feelings that you remember enjoying, and of which you’d like to experience more!
- Engage in effective listening and develop your listening skills. Ask questions about the feelings and experiences of others in need─ then listen to what they have to say. Ask permission before giving advice. Sometimes just listening to another is all the active Empathy the other needs. Apply the concepts of “positive, warm, regard.”
- Travel to places you have never been. Journey to areas that are off the beaten path. See how others live. Gain understanding.
- Give of yourself with hands-on charity work. Spend time with people in need. Listen and ask questions. Seek the greatest understanding as to their feelings about their predicament, as well any systemic societal issues that may be involved.
- Practice The Golden Rule diligently. Ask the question: How would I like to be treated if I were in that person’s situation?
Please Allow My Heart to Open.
Please Help Me to Understand.
I Seek Relief For All In Pain; I Seek Relief For All Who Suffer.
May all beings be peaceful.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be safe.
May all beings awaken to the light of their true nature.
May all beings be free.