True Empathy: What Feeling Another’s Pain Requires

“Empathy” is a popular—and often misused—term. What people usually mean when they talk about “having empathy” is “kindness” or perhaps “sympathy”. But that’s not really what empathy means.

Kindness is an important first step on the road to empathy. It involves showing sincere interest in another person. It may even mean sacrificing your own comfort. But that, alone, is not empathy.

Sympathy gets closer. It’s defined as “an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other”. But that’s not exactly empathy, either.

Empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another”. It’s active. It’s taking on another person’s suffering.

It’s hard.

The Payoff (and Pain) of Empathy

It may seem impossible to get to a place of understanding with an ex. And it may take a lot of work. But stepping back from ego, taking a moment to consider that there may be another interpretation of your relationship, can be an important first step. Once you get beyond that acknowledgement, you can start to see things from the other person’s point of view. It’s hard emotional work. But it’s liberating.

It’s important to note that when one opens oneself up to feeling what the other person feels, there are dangers. You may find yourself giving in to too many demands, accepting unacceptable behavior or excusing unfair treatment. Boundaries are essential.

And what if you aren’t ready for empathy yet?

Fake it ‘til you Feel It: Cognitive Empathy

An interesting 2017 study in the Journal of Patient Experience, discussed solutions for the problem of diminishing empathy in medical students. “Without targeted interventions”, the study argued, “uncompassionate care and treatment devoid of empathy result in patients who are dissatisfied.” The solution? “Cognitive empathy.” Even when one doesn’t feel empathy, it is possible to work toward getting there. While this may seem a little like “fake it ‘til you make it”, it’s actually a practice endorsed and used by medical professionals in their training.  It’s essential for doctors, but important for everyone, because “self- and other-empathy leads to replenishment and renewal of a vital human capacity.” That energy keeps us afloat and readies us to take the next step toward compassion.

The Final Piece of the Puzzle: Compassion

Compassion adds another layer to the “understanding” component. It adds action. Defined as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it”, compassion is active. It’s not just shared feeling. It’s shared feeling that requires a response. Taking that final step is hard and requires clear boundaries, understanding of limits—your own and others’. But it can also be the starting point for an ongoing relationship that may be important to you because of personal, professional or familial reasons.

If you’re considering divorce but would like to try an approach that might mean a brighter future, call my team to schedule a confidential consultation.