Recently, a friend and I were chatting casually when she disclosed her struggle with a parent recently being hospitalized. An immediate twinge sprouted in my stomach and my shoulders tensed as I listened to her describe feeling scared and uncertain. While, I wasn’t consciously thinking of my own aging parents, my brain and body immediately connected with her experience. If you’ve ever been in a similar situation, chances are you, like me, were experiencing empathy.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines empathy as “ the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” However, over the years, experts have disagreed over the important aspects of empathy.
Most experts now support the concept that empathy includes in 3 distinct processes. These include an affective response, cognitive capacity, and emotional regulation. Affective response refers to the ability to share another person’s emotional state. Cognitive capacity includes the ability to take the perspective of another person’s emotional state. Emotional regulation refers to the ability to keep your own emotional response separate from another person’s. In other words for many of us, when we experience empathy we not only understand what someone else is experiencing, but feel an internal resonance with their emotional expression and experience. This can trigger us to reach out and offer support to the other person.
Studies have shown that certain cells in our brains, called mirror neurons, serve a key role in empathy. In our brains, these cells fire when we observe another person having an experience or sensation. When these cells fire, they signal our brains to mimic that experience. For example, when we see another person cry, we might show distress in our faces and feel tears come to our eyes.
Empathy helps us become a better version of ourselves
It turns out that reaching out and helping someone else can benefit both the giver and the receiver. Empathy can influence both individual character development and relationships between individuals.
Social connection: Showing empathy can facilitate a stronger bond in our relationship with another. It is a powerful experience when during a time of distress, you can validate and listen to another's experience.
Helping behavior: Empathy promotes helping behaviors. When we empathize with another, we are more likely to offer our support and guidance.
Regulate emotions: Empathy helps to optimize the ability to manage our own emotional experience. Without this regulation, we could become overwhelmed by our own emotional experience and unavailable to support to the other person.
Some ideas to practice your own empathy skills
Practice being a good listener. Active listening allows the person to feel understood and heard. It means focusing on what another is saying rather than being consumed with your own thoughts.
Try perspective taking. When you are watching the news or listening to someone talk about a personal situation, try putting yourself in that person’s shoes. How would you think and feel if you were in a similar situation?
Practice gratitude. Gratitude has numerous benefits, one of which is having a more open and curious perspective to other’s life situations. This is an important building block of empathy.
Practice self-compassion. When you show yourself kindness and care, you are better able to offer kindness and care to others.
Empathy is more than a feeling or helping attitude. It is a way of perceiving, receiving and engaging with others that can help us become more receptive and open to the needs of others.
Cherry, K. The Importance and Benefits of Empathy. VeryWell Mind.
Decety, J., Jackson, P. A Social-Neuroscience Perspective on Empathy. Current Directions in Psychological Science.
Gerdes, K. Segal, E. Importance of Empathy for Social Work Practice: Integrating New Science. Social Work.