Empathy is one of those social functions that glues human relationships together. Feeling what the other person feels, being able to put yourself in their situation and understand their reactions, is a basic mechanism of how people forge bonds and co-exist. But what if empathy is lacking? What if you are unable to understand what another person is going through? How can you learn to feel empathy?
Empathic vs Empathetic
Before going any farther, there is no difference between ‘empathic’ and ‘empathetic’. They are both adjectives which mean the same thing. Empathic is the older term and is used more frequently. Empathetic came along later and is gaining ground. Yet many people don’t like it because of its resemblance to ‘pathetic’.
What is Empathy?
Defining empathy is tricky. It can be divided into two different things.
The first is an intellectual understanding of what another is experiencing. For example, you hear that a neighbor has had to have her precious dog put to sleep after a traffic accident. You don’t have a dog but you knew how much your neighbor loved hers, so you understand her feelings of loss and are able to offer sympathy and support. Your neighbor is your friend and it makes you sad to know she is devastated. However, you don’t feel the sense of loss that she does.
The second is when you feel what the other person is feeling. Again, we’ll use the neighbor and her dog, but this time, you have a dog of your own. When you hear of the accident that befell your neighbor’s dog, your heart clenches and you physically feel a keen sense of loss because you can clearly imagine how it might have been your own dog. You are right there feeling her pain as keenly as if it were your own.
Neither response is right or wrong, or better than the other. In both cases you are able to express sympathy and give your neighbor support if she needs it. However, the first response might be to make tea and biscuits while handing out tissues, while the second might mean you are both in floods of tears.
There is a third response, and that is when you don’t feel anything at all. In fact, you can’t even begin to understand. It was just a dog, after all. She should get over it already. This could be described as a complete lack of empathy and is often a reason for a relationship breakdown.
Why Don’t I Feel Empathy?
There are several reasons why someone might not feel empathic with others. Sometimes they just can’t. The empathic response is not part of their make-up. This is common among people on the autistic spectrum and is one of the indicators that point to a person being autistic or having Asberger’s syndrome.
Others may have experienced childhood trauma which caused them to shut down any empathic response. Some may have been raised that way – their parents never modeled that behavior so the child was never exposed to it. Children brought up unsympathetically in institutional environments are likely never to develop a healthy sense of empathy.
Why Should You Be Empathic?
As described above, displaying empathy is one of the social mechanisms that keep relationships and friendships together. Life is never completely smooth; people suffer tragedies, illness, loss, pain, etcetera. If a person is in a committed relationship, empathy goes a long way toward maintaining a deep connection.
Empathy is also essential in parenting. If you can’t understand how your child is feeling when he is unable to explain it to you, then you are unlikely to respond him in the best way. This can lead to the child feeling unwanted, misunderstood, unheard, and even unloved.
Yet another situation in which empathy is important is when dealing with elderly people. We can’t possibly know how difficult it is when frailty of mind and body sets in. Only by feeling empathy can we begin to understand what the person is facing.
Feeling empathic is how we are able to take care of people, animals and our environment.
First Steps to Feel More Empathic
The first step is to understand what an empathetic response is. If you can’t feel what the other person is feeling, perhaps you can try to understand why they are reacting the way they are? Imagine a worst-case scenario for yourself. How would you feel having just lost the most important person in your life? If you can imagine that, then you can respond with empathy.
Secondly, listen. Pay attention. Let them talk. You might not even have to say anything – sometimes a sympathetic ear is all that is required.
Thirdly, and only if appropriate, touch them From a light touch on the hand to a full hug – you must be 100 percent sure that is welcome, but know that many people are comforted by human contact.
Learn the appropriate empathic responses for various situations. For example, in the case of someone being upset because they’ve lost their job. It might seem like no big deal to you, but it is to them. So your response would be, “I’m so sorry to hear that. Is there anything I can do to help?”
How would you want to be treated if experiencing what they are going through? If your overriding desire would be to be on your own, then try, “I’m so sorry you are having to deal with this. Would you rather be left alone?”
It really doesn’t matter if you think you are responding automatically or mechanically. The grieving person probably won’t notice. However, the words you use are important. Your supportive actions are also important. Do your best to offer words and deeds of comfort.
The more often you practice an empathic response, the easier it will be for you to do so. As they say, “Fake it, until you make it.”
How to Deal with an Non-empathic Person
Having someone display non-empathic behavior can be startling. The other person might shrug, change the subject or even walk away.
Someone may display non-empathic response because they feel the opposite. In other words they do feel empathy to the degree that it causes them pain. So they do what they can do to relieve it, which is usually to walk away.
Another person, may not understand what the appropriate empathic response is required, so try not to judge them for their lack of understanding. It might be a lack of maturity or social grace. The important thing to remember is that they probably aren’t being rude or horrible; they just don’t know how to be empathic.
There isn’t an awful lot you can do at the time, but later, you could gently explain why you were upset by their behavior.
Can You Be Too Empathic?
Yes, definitely. People who experience empathy to such a level that they feel utterly immersed in second-hand pain and grief may be psychic. They only have to be in the presence of someone sad and they also feel sad. It’s debilitating and will affect their quality of life. In this case, it is important to get some professional help and counseling, and to have some coping strategies in place.
If you need to talk to someone about an overwhelming empathic response, get in touch with one of our excellent psychics who can give you help and advice. They know exactly how you feel.