Can Empathy be (Re)Learned?

There are three emotional states that exist when we connect with other people in a way where we can, or we think we can, feel what they are experiencing. Different people will define these word, feelings, or emotions, differently so let me begin with my own definitions so that it is clear what I am talking about.

This is the weakest of three emotions and probably the most common. It is that part of us resonates with what we experience. For example when we watch a movie we may become emotional or tearful through either the joy or hurt by what we are seeing. What is happening is that unresolved emotions within us are vibrating in sympathy to what we see. Other people who do not have the same sympathetic emotions within them will not resonate in the same way. Equally someone else may become upset by something that has no effect on us whatsoever.

Often people will attempt to stop their sympathetic emotion because it is too painful. An example of this would be when someone is upset or crying and we cannot cope with it so we make him or her a cup of tea and attempt to shut them up. Our need to shut down their emotion is because we cannot deal with it in ourself.

This is when we have also experienced the same or a similar situation so that we can feel another’s hurt or the emotion. We have no need to close it down because it is not unresolved within us. If anything our empathy and empathic responses will allow the person to get more upset so that they are able to release and resolve their inner emotions. Empathy and empathic interventions are often employed in psychotherapy as interventions to enable the person to get better.

When a self-help group gets together it is empathy at work. The individual members begin to see that they are not alone and that other people actually know and understand their situation and how they feel.

It is often said that to be empathic you need to have walked in someone else’s shoes for a while to know exactly how they feel.

This is a completely different kettle of fish because intuition is something that is way beyond cognitive understanding. It is knowing, without knowing. When you know something but have no logical knowledge to base your knowledge on.

Perhaps you are moved to contact a friend living on the other side of the world who, it turns out, is ill or unhappy and yet for some reason beyond logic you were aware of the need to get in touch. Or, you simply walk into a room and know that something is wrong. You are the one who goes up to some one to inquire how they are, if they are ok, while others have been oblivious to the fact that something is wrong.

Ok, so, these three forms of emotional connection are at play all the time but not within everyone. Most people can use sympathy, some people can use empathy but only a few people have intuitive awareness. But, this blog is about empathy and the question that it raises is can empathy be learned?

Can Empathy Be Learned?
The short answer is ‘yes’ however, you need a good imagination. When you have not experienced exactly, or even remotely, what another person has, it is still possible to feel their emotion through having a fluid imagination that can replicate their situation within your mind and your emotions.

Imagined Empathy
If you have ever hit your thumb with a hammer or stubbed your toe, then you can understand the feeling of pain. If you can use your imagination to increase that to the feeling of being hit by a truck you are using imagined empathy. If you have experienced the bereavement or loss of anything, person, animal or favoured possession you can use imagined empathy to feel the loss of a parent or a child. If you have ever felt prolonged hunger you can use imagined empathy to feel the effects of starvation.

Listening Empathy
The key to developing imagined empathy is the ability to listen well, this is known in psychotherapy as ‘active listening’. When we are able to actively listen we can hear what the other person is saying, experiencing or feeling, without allowing the noise from our own feeling to get in they way. When we are actively, listening we know that what we are feeling ‘their’ stuff and not ‘ours’.

Empathy Killers
So what kills empathy? Diminishing, discounting or demeaning other peoples experience about sums it up. We do this by not listening or by devaluing what other people are saying or feeling. But the real killer is when we assume that we know what someone is talking about without listening to them. When this happens we start telling them our story rather than listening to theirs. Or we say things like “you think that is bad just listen to what happened to me”.

So the punch line is if you want to be empathic, listen and use your imagination. And if you are not sure check out if what you are feeling is correct. You can do this by simply saying “was it like this…?” or “it sounds like you were feeling…?”

Last point
Creativity and empathy are close bed fellows. If you have empathy then you will probably have a good imagination, and if you have a good imagination you will probably be able to be empathic.

Take care, be happy and keep listening

Sean x

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