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The Components of Empathy

Empathy is a really important part of understanding yourself, understanding others as distinct individual entities that are separate from you with their own minds, limbs, motivations and intentions, and also for interacting and engaging with people in a way that's mutually respectful. If someone is unable to empathise you have a really big problem on your hands, possibly in the form of someone with a personality disorder, but more likely to be the type of person who, until something happens to them or something critical happens that makes them think beyond themselves, just doesn't 'get it'.

Empathy is about understanding and sharing in another person's position, including their feelings.

The two most common issues I see with empathy are:

1) Mistaking sympathy for empathy Sympathy is feeling pity for someone's misfortune and reacting by leaping in to fix/heal/help them, or by taking on their problems, which are all acts of pitying someone.

2) Over-empathising You think you're putting yourself in their shoes, but you're actually putting yourself in your own shoes, imagining what you would do and feel in the same situation, what you imagine your intentions might be, and then you're running with the assumption and projecting it onto them. It's like half empathy or 'emp' - you forgot to include the reality of who they are. In fact, you forget to include them.

When you have self-esteem issues, you are likely to engage in one or both of these. The former happens because you may feel pity for you and fear appearing 'judgemental' by seeing something for what it is, or not stepping in and fixing/healing/helping. The latter happens because you're so used to the inverted ego issues thing, where you make things that aren't about you about you, that you often struggle to understand why people do things differently and see it as some sort of judgement of you, or you get caught up in fantasising and illusions.

Empathy is critical Not only will it help you step outside the box and consider another person's perspective, but you will be more conscientious in your actions and avoid making swift judgements and assumptions.

Here's what pity looks like: 'Oh, there, there. How sad/awful. I bet they must always have wanted someone to love them so they can feel like a worthy person. Ooh, light bulb coming on! I know - I can love and take care of them and they will be so grateful for my love and love me back, too!'

To empathise would be to understand their position but not decide that you're the solution to the problem or  to be in control of managing it and instead, let them remain in control. It's also important to note that if and when someone does understand your position, it doesn't mean they automatically agree with it.

Empathy is actually objectivity tempered with compassion. You do not need to have personal experience of something in order to empathise - what you do need is to be able to think beyond you and consider it from several angles.

I recognise six key components of empathy:

Listening. Note that I said listening, not just hearing. This means that instead of your mind racing ahead and crunching the imaginarium, the rejectionarium, the fearanarium and other overactive cogs, you give your full attention to what is being said. You make an effort to hear them out instead of hearing, 'Bingo! This is a validation opportunity!' or 'Bingo! Oh, they need love just like me!'

Recognition. Based on general awareness of this experience, situations, boundaries, code red and amber behaviour, your own values, and even what you know, based on experience not assumptions, about this person, what feedback are you receiving?

  • Is this a good or bad situation?
  • What are you learning?
  • What do you gauge about their motivations, intentions, their position, how they're feeling, their actions? For instance, if they told you they were addicted to something, recognition of this issue would mean knowing that it's unhealthy.
  • Have you had personal experience of what's been said/the situation? What did you feel? How did you act? Is it very different or very similar? What might someone else feel? Do you know other people who have?
  • If you were them - age, personality, similar situation, background (if you know it) - what might you feel? Examples: Scared? Vulnerable? Unworthy? Attached? Attracted? Worthless? Degraded? Happy? Sad? Reluctant to go to work? Excited? Trepidatious? Blaming yourself? Proud?

Sharing in their feelings. But not ownership. Remember this is about them, not you. If it becomes all about what you feel, you've drifted too far. This doesn't mean that if they're angry, you have to be angry. It's recognising what they're feeling and applying it to what you're already learning, and often it means giving a show of support that indicates that you're listening and empathising. Note that this doesn't mean that you necessarily agree with them, or are trying to be them ,and it definitely shouldn't involve blaming and shaming.

Asking appropriate questions and clarification. You'd be amazed at how many people are right there in front of someone but they don't ask or clarify any assumptions or conclusions they're already drawing through the process of 'empathising'. What if you think something and you're way off mark? Sometimes it's as simple as saying, 'So, if I'm reading this right, you're feeling X because Y...' If you've assumed something that you gleaned from a previous conversation or interaction, be careful - you could be way off base. If I had a pound for every reader who assumed that a person's actions had something to do with a childhood experience or a previous breakup that someone had told them about, I'd be loaded. Ask them how they're feeling (without an agenda) and continue to listen.

Process the feedback - more recognition. In essence, reality. Based on what you've gauged so far, what do you think this realistically means? Also take a moment to listen to how you feel. Are you feeling upset? Angry? Overwhelmed? Happy?

Even if it doesn't change your feelings (if appropriate), does it change:

  • assumptions/beliefs you had about them/the situation?
  • plans you have?
  • the possibility of a relationship?
  • how much trust you instil in them?

Boundaries. Respect them - both theirs and yours.

Don't tell them what they're feeling, or assume that what you think are their feelings for you.

No fixing, healing and helping, especially if they haven't asked for it, or it would be inappropriate to do so, or you actually have a history of fixing, healing and helping from trying to be Florence Nightingale attempting to right the wrongs of the past.

Don't be opportunistic - this means pushing your personal agenda. e.g They tell you something, you feel pity and then think, 'Bingo, they'll be able to do X, Y, Z.'

They must retain ownership of the issue or whatever has been communicated. This is critical. Give him/her room to figure it out and don't be a 'hogger', making other people's stuff about you and taking on their problems.

Unless they say that they blame themselves, don't say, 'I know you're probably blaming yourself.' They may not be, but it may become a new frame of thought...

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