Empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another
In a society where bitterness and communal tensions are at a high and selflessness and brotherly love mixed in the lows, empathy is needed more than ever to rebuild and maintain sustainable communities. As the expression goes: "United we stand, divided we fall." If we cannot get along, respect each other and work together, we will become a fallen people and a destroyed nation. Awareness and compassion can bring about solutions. As an important first step towards compassionate behavior, empathy sets about restoring trust and rebuilding alliances. In fact, empathy is a vital ingredient of successful relationships as it helps us understand the motivations, perspectives, and needs of others.
American research professor Dr. Brene’ Brown speaks on empathy in this fashion: “Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’” Brown’s statement implies that empathy is simple and straightforward. Yet, if we are honest, many of us sometimes struggle with being empathetic. We do the exact opposite of what Brown suggests. We do not really listen. We seldom hold or create spaces for others. We do judge. We are emotionally disconnected. And the message we sometimes communicate verbally and through our non-verbal behaviors is: you are in this alone.
Why do we sometimes struggle with being empathetic?
While there may be legitimate medical reasons why some individuals fail to demonstrate empathy, most of our struggles with empathy may be tied to an unwillingness to be vulnerable. We do not want to deal with our own emotions and are overwhelmed by our own personal issues. We do not have the capacity to expend emotional energy on someone else as we are too focused on self-preservation.
In a 2020 Psychology Today article, Dr. Elizabeth A. Segal outlines Five Ways Empathy Is Good for Your Health:
- There is a link between empathy and survival. Picking up on another individual’s fear can help us avoid dangerous or unhealthy situations.
- Being connected to others is good for our own well-being.
- Focusing on the emotions of others can support the self-regulation of our own emotions, helping us de-stress.
- Increasing our empathetic abilities can lower burnout in the workplace.
- “Empathy is a foundation of the moral behaviors that create healthier communities, from which all of us benefit.”
We have witnessed a renewed focus on the importance of empathy over the past year. Books, articles, and other writings such as this one, reinforce the value of empathy. The reality is that empathy takes work, a willingness to be different, and an openness to embrace others and hear their stories. We stand at an interesting crossroad as we look forward to a post-pandemic environment. Will we harness the potential of empathy to help build stronger, healthier communities or will we back down from the challenge and retreat into our own world, catering to self?
COVID-19 created an unwelcomed shared experience. As the global number of deaths increased, it became harder (although not impossible) to avoid the anguish of others. We all have stories of isolation, fear and adjustments to a new normal. We shared these stories within our families, with our fellow colleagues and sometimes even with random strangers. In essence, we demonstrated empathy toward each other as we shared, listened and accepted each other's differing experiences. The question is, however, how many of us will remain in the zone of empathy and suspended judgment as we move forward and encounter continual stories of a different mind frame from our own? Decisions on whether to vaccinate, return to work or travel, or send our children back to school can be varied and concerning. Are we strong enough to respect and accept the decisions of others when they do not line up with our own?
The value of empathy and being empathetic is, without question, beneficial for each of us and our communities. Let’s be consistently willing to offer its healing message to those in our personal network and beyond that "you are not alone."
What are your thoughts? Leave your comments below.