I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy lately. During December, I came across many people who were either sick with the flu, stomach junk, or just all around horrible viruses. How I managed to avoid any of this, when about 84.9% of the people I was around for several weeks were sick (including my entire immediate family), is amazing! Take that MS! Hear me roar! Sorry, I’m off topic…I also talked with many people who were struggling with Christmas being their first Christmas without a loved one who had died. And a dear, long-term friend of mine whose mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in September, was experiencing what would probably be the last Christmas with her mom (unfortunately her sweet momma passed away 3 days ago). I noticed during the past month, that everyone has different ways of reacting to people who are going through tough times. It is fascinating how many people seem to have little capacity for empathy. But, what exactly is empathy?
Empathy is often confused with sympathy. As time has gone on, it seems that the two have pulled away from each other and have come to mean fairly different things. Both of the terms deal with the relationship one has to the feelings and experiences of another, and in fact are very similar, but they do differ. Dictionary.com
describes empathy as ‘the psychological identification with or vicarious experiences of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another’. In layman‘s terms, it’s basically putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Sympathy is defined as ‘the fact or power of sharing the feelings of another, especially in sorrow or trouble; full of feeling, compassion, or commiseration’. Today, sympathy is mostly used to convey pity or feelings of sorrow for someone who is experiencing grief or misfortune. You can think of a greeting card, offering messages of sorrow and support for those people in their time of need. Empathy does not only mean to “feel sorry” for someone in their time of need or distress, but to be able to walk hand in hand with the person, see through one’s eyes, and feel what one might be feeling.
“Empathy is walking a mile in someone else’s shoes…sympathy is being sorry for them that their feet hurt”
Is empathy something that human beings come by naturally or something that needs to be learned? How can we help ourselves or others be more empathetic? This has been something I have been trying to wrap my mind around for awhile. In a world where it seems like so many people are selfish and only out for themselves, it can be very distressing when you are one of the individuals who is empathetic. But, does it mean that if we are one of those individuals, that we should become cynical and just stop doing it? Is there a way that we can help ourselves or others learn how to be empathetic?
I believe empathy, and acts of care and compassion, are often learned by watching those with whom we grow up and hang around. I also think that some people are just born more empathetic than others. But, and it’s a big but, empathy can be learned if one is willing. Things like watching emotional movies and reading more books – basically being immersed in characters lives – can help develop skills of feeling what someone else is feeling. But the skills can be internalized: taking the time to listen more to others, sharing in other people’s problems and joys, paying attention to people’s facial expressions, and using eye contact, can help give you tools to be more empathetic. Sometimes simply imagining what it would be like to be in the same position as another, even if you haven’t actually experienced the same thing, can help you feel what they are feeling to a certain extent.
Empathy can help build and strengthen personal relationships. Have you ever opened up to a friend or spouse about something you are really struggling with and you get, “Im sorry. So do you wanna go get a coffee?” (insert fidgeting and eyes dancing around). Or you are really sick and you get absolutely no offer of help or care, but then your significant other moans until you wait on them hand and foot when they’re in the same boat? This is exaggerated, but people talk to me about similar situations all the time. Remember, personal trainers are like bartenders or hairdressers- we hear it all;) Some people have a hard time showing empathy when they are going through a hard time themselves- it’s hard to give when one is already knee deep in their own stuff. But showing others compassion and empathy doesn’t mean we can’t still take care of our own needs. In fact, if you truly love and care about yourself, then you are able to look outside yourself and show others more concern and empathy. So next time you see someone hurting, physically or emotionally, just take a moment to try to feel what they feel, or remember how you felt in a similar situation, and give them the care and compassion that you might want if it was you. I know, I know…I’m asking a lot! How the heck are you supposed to help someone else if you, yourself, are busy or hurting?? Well, funny you should ask. I’ve noticed that when we take the time to help others, our minds suddenly shift the focus off of ourselves and our own pain. It’ll work…just give it a try!
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.