What is empathy? Simply put, it is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s position both intellectually and emotionally. When we experience empathy, it provides us with the sense that we belong and are not alone. No one is immune from the need for empathy from others, as it helps us face the arduous challenges of the human experience.
Empathy is one of the qualities people need and expect from a counselor or health practitioner. It involves the open-minded response to convey compassion and understanding. Interestingly, the connecting power of empathy benefits the person who is going through difficulty, as well as the person who is listening and responding. The person who is helped by empathy can feel empowered with rekindled spirit and light, while the act of successfully helping someone else can feel similar.
To be able to honestly say “I understand” is helpful. This connection naturally occurs when we can thoughtfully convey to someone that we have “walked in their shoes” or understand their experiences. Sometimes it is difficult to understand what someone is going through. Remember that showing you care and acknowledging their discomfort is more important than conveying shared experiences.
Therapy groups often focus on a specific symptom or issue. They are created so that people who are experiencing the same symptoms can obtain help. Support groups function in the same way. Empathy helps us realize we are not alone, ends isolation and gives members of the group a chance to provide care to others – which can be therapeutic in and of itself.
Anyone can learn how to cultivate and express empathy. You can do this by becoming more sensitized to others, listening with an open mind and by practicing a mindfulness meditation known as “Loving Kindness.” It is a simple meditation where we imagine or connect with a feeling of respect, kindness and caring to one's self. One way to start this process is to think of someone or something that you care about to engender a feeling of kindness and compassion. It could be a partner, a child, a pet or anything that puts you in touch with someone or something you love.
Once you notice the change in your feelings, take a little bit of that caring back into yourself. Hold it there for a few moments. As we cultivate the feeling toward our self, the good feelings start to expand to friends, family and others. By practicing this even for a short time each day, we start to draw a sense of caring into everything and everyone around us.
Seek it out
Empathy is something of enormous value to our lives each day, if we will only take a moment to connect to it. Empathy can have a powerful impact on all our relationships. Eventually you will notice how much it is improving your life as people you care about will notice the empathy and support you offer.
At Community Reach Center, a leading Denver mental health clinic, we understand empathy and can help anyone who feels overwhelmed to enjoy a happier, healthier life. If you are feeling sadness for an extended period of time or are concerned that you are experiencing a mental illness, learn more about our services at communityreachcenter.org or call us at 303-853-3500 Monday through Friday. We have centers in the northside Denver metro area of Adams County, including the cities of Thornton, Westminster, Northglenn, Commerce City and Brighton.
This blog was written by Michele Willingham M.A., L.P.C., L.A.C. who is a therapist for the Justice Accountability and Recovery Team at Community Reach Center. She specializes in trauma-informed care with an emphasis on the use of mindfulness skills and is an EMDR practitioner. Michele also runs a wellness group that utilizes walking, Tai Chi exercise and yoga to help improve symptoms.