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One of the greatest traits one can demonstrate to another is empathy. Empathy is a lifeline others offer to us in unfavorable life situations. These helpful words of encouragement are like a dam that stops the flowing river of our tears.
Whether it be sickness, disease, poverty, crisis, grief, or other unfortunate situations, it's comforting to know someone is interested in our problems and cares about our emotional outcome.
What is even more powerful to me is when another person empathizes with an understanding of exactly how I feel. This time last year, we laid my mom to rest.
I was comforted by the sympathy from others and the empathy shown as they offered their condolences. However, I felt empowered in an unexplainable way when others who have been through the same type of loss provided words of comfort.
After comforting me, those offering the comfort seemed extremely grateful that they could offer the degree of peace and understanding they did. And it helped them realize that their pain, suffering, and grief had a greater purpose in the end that was brighter than its heartbreaking beginnings.
Much of our suffering works the same way. It starts as manure, something very unpleasant, but turns into fertilizer, encouraging hope and growth everywhere it is spread.
What is Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to feel or comprehend what someone else is going through. You can place yourself in someone else's position from their frame of reference.
When you show empathy, you care for other people and desire to help them. The feeling of doing so comes from having similar emotions to those who are suffering when you see them in disarray.
Furthermore, you not only have the ability to discern what a person is feeling… but what they are thinking as well. You choose not to focus on the distinct imbalance between your suffering and theirs but see the thread that ties the two together.
The ability to empathize with someone is a sophisticated thought process of recognizing the emotions of others. Yet, it is innate and often happens without a second thought. You can choose to be more or less empathetic toward others.
It's not all or nothing. When you show empathy, you can accurately comprehend the significance of someone's purposeful actions and how they felt in those moments.
I had a close friend who grew up with an alcoholic mother. She would get angry in a drunken rage and throw and break things in the home. So, he often wanted us to hang out together and was never ready to go home.
I could greatly empathize with him because my father was an alcoholic who sometimes got angry and threw things. Therefore, I greatly understood his desire to escape the anxiety and fear of being at home.
According to science, there are two significant components to empathy. Cognitive empathy and affective empathy.
- Cognitive empathy is when you have an accurate and complete knowledge of a person is thinking or feeling. With cognitive empathy, you can understand what another is thinking, although you have a different perspective. With it, you can also empathize with someone without becoming overwhelmed by the emotions of the person you are empathizing with.
- Affective empathy is when you respond to someone's unfortunate situation with the proper emotions. In other words, you have connected with them on an emotional level. With affective empathy, your feelings are shaped by another's arousal or emotional state.
Ways to Become More Empathetic
Since the benefits of empathy outweigh the drawbacks, let’s look at ways to become more empathetic.
Be curious about others. Have a natural curiosity about yourself, like when you were a kid. You can do this by learning to observe others openly and striking up conversations with people you don't know. This shows you the world from a different view and helps you have empathy, no matter their life choices.
Immerse yourself in the experiences of others. In other words, try putting yourself in someone else's shoes to become more empathetic. I have done this by volunteering my time at a homeless shelter.
While there, I learned the back story of many who frequented the shelter and increased empathy for them. I also gained compassion for those running the shelter because of the lack of resources they had to continue assisting those in need and meet the growing demand.
Lay aside any biases you may have. You won't empathize with someone whom you are biased against. So, focus on what makes you similar to a person rather than the things that make you different.
Please get to know someone for who they are rather than label them with cultural stigmas and traditional stereotypes. Eliminating these boxes, you put others in will help you be more empathetic.
7 Benefits of Showing Empathy Throughout Your Life
There are many benefits to showing empathy to others. As we already touched upon… not only may your words and genuine concern put them in the mental space they need to be, but displaying empathy can also make yourself feel good. Even if only for a few moments, you mattered a great deal to this person and made a difference.
Here are some more benefits to showing empathy.
Benefit 1. It gives you a deep and meaningful connection with others.
You can have shared feelings of understanding with another person. There is no worse feeling than to go through hardship alone and feel no one cares or understands. Connecting with someone on a deep level is when you feel that someone finally “gets you.”
They see things from your perspective, understand why you think the way you think, feel the way you feel, and react the way you do.
Benefit 2. Empathy helps us handle stress.
We can relate to others better when we learn to control our emotions. This control or emotional regulation allows us to empathize with others without becoming overwhelmed by their problems.
A friend called me yesterday and talked non-stop for an hour and a half about her problems (many of them I have heard before). After the conversation, she texted me to apologize for pouring out her problems on me because she knew I was going through a lot myself.
Fortunately, I learned a long time ago to control my emotions, enabling me to empathize with her situation without being overwhelmed by them.
Benefit 3. Empathy can help you assess a situation and possibly save a life.
You have an innate ability to read others. You can see when a person is exhibiting fear and tune in to what is causing the look of terror. This puts you in the situation to act on their behalf to save their life, your life, and possibly the lives of others.
This reminds me of a story I heard last week. Officers were called to a home invasion. Upon arrival, one officer immediately empathized with the injured homeowner he saw lying on the floor. The other officer left the room to thoroughly search the house.
While the first officer looked to attend to the victim, the injured man’s look turned from relief to terror as he gazed up toward the staircase behind the officer.
Finally, reading the homeowner's reaction, the officer understood that the intruder was behind him, and he was able to turn around and take down the assailant without getting hurt.
Benefit 4. We can navigate difficult circumstances.
The higher our ability to empathize, the better the mental state we find ourselves in. We are less likely to experience burnout and better able to keep ourselves in good head space.
Hardships can bring on feelings of anger, frustration, and burnout as we lose our joy in the process of the situation. Yet, showing empathy to others helps them feel their issue isn't hopeless anymore and gives us the ability to go through our own circumstances with a more hopeful outlook.
Benefit 5. It is morally right to show empathy and makes us feel good.
We get a warm feeling inside and great pride in knowing we are doing the right thing. Many videos on social media show people empathizing with those experiencing poverty and being less fortunate and coming to their aid.
While many knock the creators for publicizing their good deeds, others understand the inspiration behind them, encouraging others to do the right thing. The video also awakens the innate ability to show empathy within us, reminding us of our moral responsibility to others.
Benefit 6. Helps to resolve conflict.
When you are empathetic, you can resolve conflict, even before it happens. You can see potential issues before they arise and nip small matters before they escalate into more significant ones.
My friend Derek has two kids, a boy who’s 7 and a girl who is 10. He can relate to their childhood dynamic because he also had one sibling that was an older sister.
He remembers being his son’s age when his older sister would bully him, beat him up, tease him, break his toys, and always divert the blame back to him. Derek also recalls the mean and spiteful ways he mistreated his sister.
As a result, when he saw similar behavior from his son and daughter, he called them out and stopped the behavior.
He was able to share with both of them how they could have a productive and loving relationship and help them come to an understanding based on his own situation.
Derek told his two kids that he and his sister are best friends now but wished the two had learned to get along sooner.
Benefit 7. Empathy leads to restoration and purpose.
Who would have thought that walking in empathy toward others and their feeling of brokenness would heal us and put us back together again?
Empathy helps us walk in healing, understanding, creativity, and happiness. As a result, we become innovative in finding solutions and begin to discover our purpose in life.
Jessica, my neighbor's daughter, attended college on a full athletic scholarship to play basketball. While there, she majored in communications and media marketing. After graduation, Jessica graduated and got a job at a local news station.
But, after two years of reporting the news, she began to be overwhelmed with feelings of emptiness and lack of fulfillment.
One day, while reporting an incident at a local children's hospital, Jessica spent time off the air visiting with the children and their parents and listening to their stories.
She empathized greatly with them because she had a little sister who was sick as a child and remembered what she saw her parents go through.
She also reflected on the nurses and how they comforted her family throughout the process. Jessica greatly admired that and wanted to find a way to comfort families. So, she went back to school and found her purpose in nursing.
Final Thoughts on the Benefits of Empathy
If you think about it, there are endless benefits to showing empathy. Life is about something much more significant than us and the things we go through. Life is an infinite circle in which we are all bound… for better or for worse. Our actions and words impact everything we experience, feel and do.
I would add that we don't go through difficulties in life for ourselves alone. But there is a greater purpose at work, guiding us to uplift others along the journey and grow into the best versions of ourselves as a result.
And if you're looking for more resources on empathy, be sure to check out these blog posts:
- Sympathy VS Empathy: 5 Basic Differences with Examples
- 25 Examples of Validating Statements to Show Empathy
- 11 Good Movies About Empathy & Showing Compassion
Finally, if you want a simple way to reduce your stress and anxiety, then try writing these 35 mindfulness journaling prompts to live more in the present moment.