“Sometimes all a person wants is an empathetic ear, all he or she needs is to talk it out. Just offering a listening ear and an understanding heart for his or her suffering can be a big comfort.” – Roy T. Bennett
Empathy is the ability to put oneself in the situation of another experiencing emotions, ideas or opinions of that person. Whereas, sympathy is feeling bad for someone’s suffering, but cannot feel or resonate with the actual feeling of that person. In order to be empathetic we must have experienced the feeling that the other person is feeling, and even better, recognise it for what the emotion is, i.e. name it. If we lack the spectrum of emotions we are not likely to be able to be empathetic. In society we see this in the division and the inability to empathise with the perspectives and opinions of others; by and large humanity today lacks the emotional intelligence (EQ) to be empathetic. The good news is that this merely a lack of practice.
We grow up learning and being conditioned that emotions are something to fear and avoid. As a result we react by being sad, upset or pissed off, we simply do not know how else to react to our emotions. Hence, the first step to empathy is to improve one’s EQ.
Behaving empathically is where we come upon the grey areas. For me it comes down to taking a compassionate perspective and accepting someone’s experience and path, irrespective of my mind’s opinion of that might be. One must recognise that any action one takes involving oneself in the experiences of others, one has to also take the consequences of that action. Consider some examples, a close relation who’s struggling with addiction, some one we love choosing unorthodox healing options to deal with a serious illness, or some other very challenging situation. I can think of many different options for action, or inaction, that all would cause severe consequences for an individual not directly involved but in a position to act. I need to mindful if my discomfort of holding empathic space for someone influences my motivation to act in one way or another. If that is the case, I am no longer empathic, I am acting to avoid my own pain. It is a challenging to sit in someone’s darkness without trying to brighten up the space in someway, but that is the empathic path.