Empathy is the glue that binds people together. Shared experience. We do it all the time. It’s how we connect to one another, be it perfect strangers or our closest friends and family.
Let’s say we’re at a ball game. Our team is fighting to win. The suspense is palpable. Everyone feels it. Everyone is in the same mood at the same time. If the team wins, everyone is elated. It feels great. High-fives all around! If they lose, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know what everyone is feeling. Ultimately, you would act accordingly, and with respect to the energy of the people you’re with.
Or, say your young child falls and skins their knee. You know they’re hurt, and scared, maybe a little embarrassed, too. So, you reach out and comfort them. If you were in the middle of something, then typically, all stops until they get through the pain they’re experiencing. The better your comfort, the quicker their pain disperses.
Empathy is that quality or capacity to not only appreciate what someone is feeling ( that alone is what we might call Sympathy ), but also the ability to be in that moment with them and share the experience.
So, let’s say your friend shares that they just lost a job they really loved. Whether you’ve ever lost a job you loved or not, you can relate to their pain. They probably feel rejected, and embarrassed, confused, and scared, maybe even angry.
You’re listening to them, and you want to help. You’re a good friend who doesn’t want to see them in pain. Who would?! Well, what do you do next? You could immediately start reassuring them that everything is going to be fine. You could start telling them about other jobs you know of, or where to start looking. You could even tell them not to feel bad because that company didn’t deserve them.
All of which would be fine, IF they had first been validated for the pain they’re going through.
When we feel something strongly, it can actually be somewhat confusing and disorienting. It’s disorienting because emotions have energy. That energy needs to be released, or expressed. Empathy, the ability to be with someone in their feelings, has the function of validating that person in their experience. As a result, this helps them release the energy, through acknowledging the pain, and taking personal responsibility for what they are feeling. If someone else can see me in my pain, and accept me with it, then I’ll probably be okay. If I feel better, I’m also more likely to find a positive resolution to my problems.
If, for instance, they are unable to share, or release, what they’re feeling, the emotional energy associated with that pain may become lodged inside them. We’ve probably all known someone who was deeply resentful of others, and was virtually crippled by the re-feeling of hurt and anger. Research has shown that there are clearly significant physical health consequences associated with carrying stored-up painful emotions, including: high blood pressure, heart disease, ulcers, sleep disorders, mood disorders, obesity, and increased risk of stroke, to name a few.
Years ago, it was thought that you could release that energy by punching a punching bag, or going in the woods and yelling as loud as you can. I remember trying it. It didn’t work. It was later discovered that all that was really accomplished was you learned how to punch or yell when you’re upset-an unfortunate skill set in relationships. Nothing was resolved and no one felt any better.
So, going back to our newly jobless friend, the first thing we need to do is get them talking about what they’re going through. In other words, what they are feeling—not what they are doing. Remember, we’re human BEINGS, not human DOINGS. Problem solving might feel to them more like criticism anyways, until they manage the painful energy that goes with such emotions as fear, confusion, disappointment, shame, rejection, etc. Once they feel heard and understood, and if they really want advice, you can help them with their next move.
Easier said than done? Absolutely! Especially, if YOU’RE not actually comfortable with emotions yourself.