Empathy. It’s a fairly simple and well-known word, one that I hear people using often. Whether people are talking about what they want in their relationships, what they do best on a team, or how they support their friends, empathy is a term I hear people claiming to have a lot of. Yet, I think empathy is without a doubt one of the most misunderstood concepts among humans. I don’t think we want to miss the mark like we do; I think most of us genuinely want to be empathic and comforting. However, somewhere along the way we’ve lost sight of what empathy means and how we can give it to those around us.
So what is empathy? Let me start with what empathy isn’t.
Empathy isn’t about making things better. It isn’t a bandaid; it isn’t a quick fix. It isn’t about offering advice or making suggestions.
Empathy isn’t about one upping, comparing, or shaming. It isn’t about sharing your similar story and how you have felt that way before.
Empathy isn’t sympathy or pity. It isn’t a sad look or an “I’m sorry.”
Empathy isn’t judgmental. It isn’t evaluative. It isn’t about sharing your opinion on how to think or feel differently.
So then, what is empathy?
Empathy is about connected and curious caring. It is a recognition of pain, an acknowledgement of someone’s suffering.
Empathy is gentle and tentative. It’s patient and thoughtful. It is finely tuned to the nuances of their pain.
Empathy is focused on the person and their unique experience. It recognizes that their experience is sacred and important.
Empathy is connected and vulnerable. It is brave and daring, but in a quiet and unexpected way. It risks not saying the “right” thing to say the empathic thing.
Empathy is feeling someone’s pain from their shoes and vantage point. In the words of Brene Brown, empathy is feeling with people.
So why am I writing about empathy? Why is it so important?
In my job as a psychologist, I hear a great deal of pain. Heart-wrenching pain, hurt, confusion, doubt, and rejection. So often, when we are in the midst of this emotional pain, we want to reach out, but we’re afraid. We’re afraid people will judge, that they won’t understand. We’re afraid they’ll offer quick advice or suggest we feel differently. We’re afraid they won’t hear how deep our pain is and how much we need validation. We want empathy, but we are afraid.
Brene Brown, one of my favorite researchers and storytellers, has some incredible words of wisdom about empathy. You can hear them in this short and lovely video. They’re pretty powerful.
Right now, you probably need empathy from someone. And at the same time, you probably have people in your life who need empathy from you. Empathy is what it’s about y’all. We need it. We want to give it. And if we work to be intentional and rethink empathy, we can totally do it.