People tend to know what kind of support and empathy they need from others. Whether one goes through grief and loss, abuse, heartbreak, mental illness, or other trauma, they know what genuine support feels like and which feels best for them personally. This weeds out the people they reach out to and the people they don't. Yet, when it comes to empathizing with and lending support to others, many people are stumped. They don't know how to respond, so they avoid the situation altogether.
Genuine empathy goes beyond words. It goes beyond knowing the right thing to say at the right time. Genuine empathy is allowing yourself to be vulnerable, opening yourself to feel the feelings of the person with whom you are empathizing. It is a lost art in a world where we need compassion and connection as much as ever.
Brené Brown is an American scholar that has done substantial research on empathy and vulnerability. She talks about the difference between sympathy and empathy; empathy influences connection while sympathy drives disconnection. Sympathy separates yourself from the person who is hurting because it implies you are outside looking in, rather than stepping down into the place the other person is coming from and feeling from their perspective. It makes them feel more alone.
Empathy is to be vulnerable. In order to feel what the other person is feeling, you have to connect with something inside yourself that knows that feeling. It looks differently to different people. Sometimes it means just listening and feeling, saying nothing at all.
Brené Brown references Theresa Wiseman's 4 Qualities of Empathy in the video below:
1. To be able to see the world as others see it — this requires putting our stuff aside to see the situation through the eyes of a loved one.
2. To be nonjudgmental — judgment of another person's situation discounts the experience and is an attempt to protect ourselves from the pain of the situation.
3. To understand another person’s feelings — we need to be in touch with our personal feelings in order to understand someone else's. This also requires putting aside "us" to focus on our loved one.
4. To communicate our understanding of that person’s feelings — rather than saying, “At least,” or, “It could be worse,” try, “I've been there, and that really hurts,” or (to quote an example from Brown) “It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it."
To be empathetic truly is an art, and we need to get more creative.