“When others are happy, be happy with them. If they are sad, share their sorrow…” (Romans 12:15).
The ability to feel and communicate true empathy with another creature is an extremely important way to feel and to communicate love. Empathy is the identification with, or the vicarious experiencing of, the thoughts and feelings of another person or animal. We can identify with another because we have been in similar situations and can remember what we felt and thought. Even if we haven’t been in a very similar situation, we still know what it is like to feel afraid, very sick, very hungry, and so forth.
In order to feel empathy accurately, we need to bring into play some very real skills. In the first place, we need to closely pay attention to the other person’s total communication, including what the person is saying, the emotional tone of his or her speech, facial expression, body language, and etc. We need to set aside our personal thoughts for the moment, so that the focus of our concentration is on really hearing the other. In order words, we need to “deny ourselves.” (This focus is not so easy, as we are oftentimes in the habit of (1.) thinking of our own concerns, or (2.) thinking of what we are going to say in response even before the person is through speaking, or (3.) not wanting to bother.)
Once we have, hopefully, felt and understood the other person, accurately, at gut level, we need to let the other person know that, at gut level. Well, we can communicate our understanding by (1.) matching the person’s mood and intensity, and by (2.) responding with a phrase that echoes what he or she said. For example, we could say, with deep concern showing in our voice, eyes, face, and posture, “Sounds like you were terrified. I was really scared when my dog was lost, too.” (3.) Label the feelings.
Empathy was at the very core of Jesus’ motivations when he died on the cross for us. He had the capacity to feel empathy and compassion for us to the core of his being. He knew our situation and our weaknesses, and he deeply, deeply cared. His response was to do something to break down the barrier between God and man, so that we could have eternal life. Jesus’ empathy was active and involved. He healed, he helped, he died and rose again.
So, too, communicating empathy breaks down barriers between persons, and builds bridges. When someone is sharing his or her experiences with us, the person is allowing us to know them a little more deeply. When we respond with empathy, the more accurate the better, we are letting the other know us a little more deeply. In the interaction between the two of us, we have become more “one” - one in understanding, motives, feelings, accessibility, and etc. Also, in the interaction, we are treating one another with respect, consideration, and as real persons, NOT as objects to be manipulated or exploited.
Living in an atmosphere of shared empathy aids greatly in producing strong, healthy, happy individuals, who are good-hearted and kindly to people and animals alike. Being really understood helps a person to feel emotionally supported - burdens are shared – he or she is not alone. Practicing empathy helps all of us to progress further on the road to true lovingness. We show that we really care and that we are really there. The more we empathize, the more we mature as the best loving humans we can be, because we realize the kinship between all creatures. Deep underneath the surface, we are basically all alike and all family. So, we can identify to the point that we feel acutely the feelings of the other creature, no joke!
Responding to someone with inaccurate, or inept, empathy is about as damaging as responding with no empathy at all. Also very damaging is responding with false, or con-artist empathy.
In the case of inaccurate, or inept empathy, we have missed the meaning of the person’s communication by a little or a lot. So, our communication back to him or her sends an inappropriate message. The person does not feel understood, and may, instead, feel deflated and a little confused. Perhaps we have been inaccurate because our attention has been elsewhere, because we are not in contact with our own feelings, much less the other persons, or because we have our own hang-ups and self-centeredness.
We have, undoubtedly, all had the experience of telling someone something which is very significant to us, only to have the person respond with a dead-pan voice and facial expression, as if the person “couldn’t care less.” The worst scenario is when the other individual doesn’t even act as though we have said anything, and does or says nothing in response. Oh, boy, does that put walls up between people! It is as though the other person is just refusing to acknowledge us, or give us their time at all. They seem to say, “I don’t want you to know me, and I don’t want to know you, don’t dump on me!”
I know I have had my joy and excitement about neat happenings really deflated many times after telling dead-pan responders about them. .For instance, when I am joyful and excited about something, I feel the urge to tell someone who will be joyful and excited with me, as indicated by their joyful, excited response. If the person responds in a disinterested, “flat” monotone, any joy in me has more than likely been considerably diminished, if not completely destroyed! In short, he or she has “burst my bubble.” The person has also probably erected an interpersonal “wall” between us because I will be reticent to share with that person again. The experience will have been disappointing and probably also at least mildly painful, or at the most, extremely painful. Tragically, the flow of joy and love has been thereby restricted or even stopped up completely in just that one instance.
In an opposite situation, taking seriously someone’s sorrow, heartbreak, worry, an etc., is likewise extremely important. How it hurts when someone makes light of our pain, physical or emotional, and, by the quality of their response, “tosses it off,” as if we are nothing. How animals must be crushed when humans ignore their pain and hurt, and do nothing! We really tend to avoid such a person in the future, especially when it comes to “sharing our heart.” Animals avoid similarly, too!
Not much imagination is needed to project what will happen to the quality of habitually unempathetic, disharmonious relationships. Broken marriages, parent and child alienation, fractured friendships, animal behavior problems, dysfunctional environments, and the like, can and definitely do result. The recipients of repeated cold, indifferent responsiveness are liable to feel distrustful, disappointed, angry, frustrated, discouraged, unloved, “put down,” and lonely. There are concerned segments of society who consider such insensitive responding to constitute emotional abuse and/or neglect, and definitely most unkind and unmannerly!
Another twist in inept responding involves the person who is, seemingly with concern, bound determined to correct the sharing person. “Oh, you shouldn’t feel that way, “he or she admonishes. Therefore, the sharing ones feel no sympathy coming to them, and may believe it is wrong for them to feel the way they do, and that there is something wrong with them. This is nonsense! People feel the way they feel! They need to be understood first of all, and then redirected afterwards if there is a good case for a change of heart and mind. Telling them to deny their feelings is destructive.
Seemingly epidemic in our culture today is the con-artist empathizer. Oh, how friendly and sympathetic these types of folks seem! They know just how to “push your buttons.” They can make you feel as though you have been best friends for years, and that they deeply have your best interests at heart. Buyer beware! Is such a person trying to sell you something? What are his or her true motives? They seem so understanding and ready to help you solve your problem! Sometimes sales people, and others who could somehow benefit from you, are simply very nice people sincere people. But, the con-artist type is extremely prevalent and, if sensing your feelings, is planning on using that knowledge of you to his or her own advantage, not yours. This type is treating you like an object, to be manipulated and/or exploited. They are usually very good at their “act,” having practiced for a long time! We do need to practice wise discernment in terms of who we share ourselves with! People who cannot truly empathize in a positive way are character disordered, and are “stuck with” being that way. They treat others as objects because they do not have the brain connections to do otherwise. As such, they are handicapped.
In contrast to the above, sensitive, empathetic responses can be wonderfully healing, encouraging, life-giving, and relationship-building. They can take away loneliness, leave feelings of warm satisfaction, and allow Christ-like love to flow. An empathetic episode is an episode of “interactional synchrony” where the movements, thoughts, and feelings of two or more persons flow together, intermeshed.
Jesus said He wants us to be “one” as He and the Father are one, with similar spirits, goals, feelings, thoughts, and etc. Sharing empathy is a key vehicle through which we actually become more “one,” because we are then in real connectedness and knowingness with each other, in a very healthy, constructive manner. Through empathetic communications we can offer kindness, gentleness, patience, caring, understanding, compassion – all gifts of the Holy Spirit – tremendously healing and strengthening.
“…are yours hearts tender and sympathetic at all? Then make me truly happy by loving each other and agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, working together with one heart and mind and purpose. Don’t be selfish, don’t live to make a good impression on others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourself. Don’t just think of your own affairs, but be interested in others, too, and in what they are doing.” (Philippians 2:1-4)
Dr. Joyce at firstname.lastname@example.org