Slightly different article this week. I’ve spent a lot of my spare time writing, writing blogs, diaries, the odd few essays, reports and so on. I’ve written a fair bit. Also, I have written about empathy a lot via my own reflections and realise that I am not an ‘expert’ (at anything in fact) and always learning. Usually, The Psych Journey website involves an objective filled article but ultimately, I feel that these topics are really important too. This article is about sharing understanding the meaning of empathy and some key lesson I have learned myself. Hope you enjoy reading!
What is empathy? What’s the difference between empathy and sympathy? I attended a conference one year ago that helped me understand the answer to this question.
I’ve spent a long time practising empathy and I’m sure I will continue to learn more about it. None of us are perfect at expressing empathy and sometimes forget to share empathy in the most important moments. However, reflection and recognising this flaw or perhaps, an error is crucial for us all. This conference transformed my understanding of empathy and has helped me significantly.
feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune
the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
If you think about being in complete despair about something that has happened in your life – you’re in a dark hole. Imagine being in a dark hole under the ground and that hole is covered with a drain cover, just like those big ones covering drains on roads. Sympathy would look like someone (who you may know or not know personally) lifting the lid and popping their head over the hole and shouting down to you “Hey, I feel bad for you, let’s hope things get better”. Easy, right? Empathy on the other hand would look like that same person climbing down a ladder into that hole, sitting by your side and saying “Hey, I know this is horrible and I know it hurts, but I’m here. This won’t be nice, but I’m right here with you and you can get through this”. This helps you identify that this person truly cares, they’re sharing empathy, they’ve let you know that no matter how rubbish it might be for them to join this despair, they’re doing it anyway. There is no specific target to ‘fix’ this problem, only that they are right there with you. There is a profound difference in meaning between the two words (empathy and sympathy) and it is important that we understand the terminology of both. I really like this video on YouTube which summarises the above perfectly.
I thought I knew exactly what empathy was and I thought I was perfecting it in my job and personal life. Although I thought that, I was wrong. I analysed my diaries, and my behaviour towards others; my bias analysis but in-depth reflection told me that I was adopting more of a sympathetic approach. This is merely an example of how we can get things wrong at times but, what can we do to refresh our minds and learn some key lessons.
It just so happened that I attended this conference with work, two senior healthcare professionals stood in front of us, ready to re-ignite our levels of empathy in our world of work and maybe, our personal lives. So, there I am, our first task, a blind fold placed over my eyes and I must trust two of my colleagues to guide me to an unknown place. We could have opted out of the task but I’m all about a challenge. I was held by the arm, my eyes covered, and I had no idea where I was heading. All I knew is that there were 14 groups of 3 and 1 from each group were blindfolded and being helplessly guided towards other colleagues. To say this experience was distressing was an understatement. As we bumped into doorways, chairs, and stumbled down some stairs, I dissociated from my surrounding and felt disorientated. I was feeling a turmoil of emotions, my first guide (colleague) was instructed to not talk to me, I found it highly distressing, lost trust and was frustrated. It’s also important to note that this was my supervisor and I trust this person (a lot!). I then had other colleagues laughing at us, laughing at me, probably because I was walking hunched over like I had a curved spine; but that was because I was trying to feel for the bannister on this old golf club staircase. The colleagues switched and this time, to a less familiar colleague, but at least she talked to me. It helped me address the meaning of being comforted; it gave me an overwhelming sense of security that someone who had no vision could have this support, this level of empathy is profound.
Following this experience, I felt gratitude and empathy but, in a way that I have never felt before. I’m lucky. What must it be like for people with no vision (my thoughts of people who have a disability continued but due to the context, people with no vision were at the forefront of my mind). It also made me reflect on my job, what about those people whom I see that express feelings of despair, sorrow, sadness, depression, feelings of hopelessness, confusion, jumbled thoughts, thoughts of suicide and with that, feeling like they have no meaning in their life. I have the unique ability to physically and mentally visualise objects and stimuli in my day-to-day life, I can see my surroundings, my workplace, nature, my family, girlfriend and friends. I also have the support in my life to pull me through the hard times which I very much see and feel. I am lucky. It’s crucial to know that if we are empathetic, we can give a person that edge they truly need to keep going.
In summary, empathy is a valuable skill that we can all develop. One of the most important skills I would suggest to people supporting a friend, family member or colleague from a general perspective or even so, a mental health perspective, is empathy. We can choose to articulate it, with effort. Sit for a moment, how does it feel to be in the worst place you’ve ever been? What did you need? I’m sure just another human (maybe even a pet – different topic) with a listening ear and empathy would be the answer. Again, we are not looking for resolution at this point, just empathy, support and reassurance. Furthermore, the expenditure of empathy is very important, you must value your ability to be empathetic so be careful when exhausting levels of empathy. Fundamentally, if you are confused, practise – practise is key and then it becomes a skill. See how it makes one (partner, parent, child or friend) feel when you share empathy. It is important to know that you are not looking for immediate resolution for one’s despair and you are not looking for a ‘returned favour’ or reciprocity. You are ultimately, identifying with them and reassuring them that you are there, by their side. Being more empathetic can make us feel empowered and positive and an overall better person.
I cannot recommend this book enough when thinking about empathy and being kind to ourselves: