The theme of Canadian Mental Health Week 2022 is: Empathy. At TELUS Health MyCare we believe it’s never been more important to have empathy – for our friends, loved ones, neighbors, coworkers, and even for strangers. We sat down with TELUS Health MyCare lead Clinical Counsellor Lindsay Killiam (MSW) to find out what empathy is, what it isn’t, and how you can practice empathy in your own lives.
What is empathy?
Empathy is being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It’s when you can relate to another person’s experience, and sit with them in their thoughts and feelings.
What’s the difference between empathy and sympathy?
Empathy and sympathy are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing.
Empathy is connecting on the level of: “I’m okay; you’re okay”. When we have empathy for another person, we become equal players. Healthy empathy comes from a place where you can relate to and understand another person’s situation, while at the same time trusting that you’re both capable of processing those emotions, working through them, and being okay.
When we have sympathy for someone, we may be able to recognize or notice what they’re feeling, but we don’t necessarily experience it ourselves. When we approach a situation from a place of sympathy, we’re saying “I’m okay; you’re not okay.”
Why is empathy so important, especially now?
Empathy is a fundamental way of relating to another person’s experience; of connecting with someone on an emotional level. When we can approach a variety of situations from a place of wanting to understand each other, then we can work through conflict and grow in our relationships. And not just intimate relationships, but all relationships.
Putting in effort to really understand the experience of another person can have positive outcomes in all areas – at home, at work, at school, and in public. When we position ourselves to try to understand another person, we make it safe for them. The expression “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” rings true when we are practicing empathy.
Empathy doesn’t just need to be shown to other people, it’s important to be empathetic with ourselves. We’re often our own worst critics – when we can turn the lens of empathy inward and try to understand where negative self-talk is coming from, we allow ourselves to move forward without judgment. When you show up for yourself you can show up for others.
Why do people struggle with empathy?
Why do people struggle with empathy?
Practicing empathy is not always easy. When you’re holding space for someone who is experiencing trauma or intense distress, it’s easy to take on some of that trauma. This is why it’s important to remember what empathy is and isn’t. Part of empathy is the trust and belief that the other person can survive and thrive through what they are experiencing. When we trust that someone is capable, then we can sit with them through those difficult times without taking on the responsibility for those emotions.
We all have a desire to feel connected to other people. But for many of us, the barrier is a lack of emotional language. Many of us are never taught to recognize and name our emotional experiences. And that can make it difficult to have empathy – when we see someone else experiencing difficult emotions, we may be afraid to reach out empathically, because we don’t know how to talk about those emotions or we don’t have the language to articulate what we’re feeling.
There’s often also a fear that if we name an emotion, it becomes real, and then it’s potentially something that we can’t handle.
How do I get better at practicing empathy?
Empathy is a skill that can be learned. To help with this, one thing we can do is to get in touch with the physical experience of certain emotions. You may notice tension in your shoulders when you’re stressed, or an upset stomach when you’re anxious. Getting used to making those connections in ourselves can make it easier to recognize similar reactions in other people.
Feelings charts are used often in therapy with children, but they can be useful for adults as well. Many people are aware of “umbrella emotions” like anger, sadness, and happiness. But each of these words can potentially cover a range of different emotions, and they often aren’t specific enough to really get to the root of a feeling.
Looking at a feelings chart can help us delve deeper into what we’re actually feeling, and in turn, pinpoint where that feeling is coming from. For example, you might recognize a feeling initially as anger, but upon reflection realize that you’re actually frustrated. Calling something frustration paints a much more detailed picture and provides more context for the feeling. Practicing this kind of emotional interpretation can help us better hone in on what others are feeling in different situations.
When we learn how to describe and name specific emotions, they become recognizable – and often, more manageable.
Is there such a thing as too much empathy?
Not exactly! But there is a need to strike a balance between compassion and self-compassion. Part of this is in setting boundaries, and respecting our own boundaries. When we have empathy for ourselves, we’re better equipped to gauge our own emotional bandwidth. We know when we’re able to show up for someone, and when we just don’t have that capacity.
If empathy becomes a problem for us, then it’s no longer empathy. We’ve crossed a line into being a fixer, or into sympathy. Empathy is not prescriptive; it’s about being present and listening to someone, without necessarily trying to offer practical solutions.
When helping others, practice asking rather than telling. Instead of telling someone how they “must” feel, use phrases like
It sounds like…
I am hearing that…
I imagine that…
I am guessing…
Oftentimes, just making someone feel heard and understood is enough to help.
Everyone, including yourself deserves compassion and it’s from this compassion we find our strength to authentically support ourselves and those around us.
If you want to chat more about empathy and how you can apply it to your daily life please book an appointment with anyone of our exceptional counsellors in the TELUS Health MyCare app. You deserve to feel your best so you can be your best for others.
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