Empathy: to put yourself in someone else's place. To experience the same emotion someone else experiences, in order to care for them.
(Note: Sympathy is to tell someone that you're sorry that they're hurting...it's something you tell them, not something that you experience with them).
Something weird has happened to me since I began doing therapy treatment in the past few years. I'm less of a jerk.
I assume that people think that all therapists are naturally caring, loving, empathetic people, and I think that we should be. But I know what's happening inside my brain, and I know that I can be selfish, indifferent, and impatient. It's hard for me to see, or care about other's pain in light of my own pain, or perceived need.
It's been pretty embarrassing. With clients, it's easy to care, and I feel true compassion for their needs and wants, but when I would walk out of my office and flip off that therapist switch, I would yell at slow drivers in front of me, get angry at bad customer service, and feel entitled to my rights and needs in sacrifice to others like any other normal Angeleno.
Recently, though, I've noticed that I naturally care for people in front of me, and it doesn't feel inauthentic.
Researching how empathy changes your brain, I think I have an understanding of why I'm experiencing change inside. Our brains are dynamic...always changing, and improving the more we "practice" a specific behavior. One of the brain spots that focus on empathy is the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, in the front part of your brain. It's one of the places that's responsible for calming down the stress hormones in your body.
It also grows the more you exercise it. Like working out, what used to take a lot of effort (you know, not being a jerk) now comes more natural.
A therapist's job, if broken down to one thing, is to sit with someone and actively care about them. I've been intentionally caring for the person in front of me 20+ hours a week for the last 8 years. It's like an Empathy Marathon every week! My Anterior Cingulate Cortex is growing! And, as a result, I experience MUCH less anger, anxiety, and shame.
Also, everyone needs people in their lives that give them TRUE empathy. If you don't have those people, we need to find you some.
Think of someone who has made you angry in the past, but the angry feelings are no longer intense.
Identify their perspective on the past issue. What's their background? How do they understand the issue? Were they feeling threatened (acting defensive is very often a reaction to feeling threatened).
Practice thinking about how they would describe the issue you had, without any defense or input from your side.
If you pray, pray FOR this person. Don't pray for what you think they need in order to be less of a jerk, but pray for their well being. Here's a scripture to use:
‘May the Lord bless (Ms. X) and protect (Mr. X). May the Lord smile on (Mr. X) and be gracious to (Ms. X). May the Lord show (Ms. X) his favor and give (Mr. X) His peace.’
Numbers 6:24-26 NLT
Come on, do it. It's good for your brain =).
Check out Brene Brown's video on Empathy. She's awesome.
Also, if you're interested, check out this article on the benefits of practicing and improving your empathy for our communities:
Here's a few more on the science of empathy: