Exploring Empathy Part 1: Why Are We Afraid of This Crucial Part of Our Relationships
As a therapist, one of the things I love to do is help people figure out why they do what they do. My clients and I explore the layers in their lives in order to find valuable insight into who they are. But that’s only a small part of what I do. A huge part of my work is empathizing with my clients in a very real way.
Empathy is so important because we are all born to empathize with one another. Empathy is simply feeling what someone else is feeling. We are actually hardwired to empathize. For example, babies younger than six months register the cries of other babies as their own pain. That’s why you often see a kind of domino effect with crying babies.
Why Do We Avoid Empathy?
Dr. Brené Brown, a leading author, research professor, and speaker on topics like courage, vulnerability, and empathy suggests that, when we truly empathize with another person, we have to feel what they are feeling. And often, this requires us to feel uncomfortable or painful feelings.
This captures why we often fight the urge to empathize with another person: because engaging in empathy inevitably leads to actually experiencing another’s pain or uncomfortable feelings with them. This is due to our brain’s natural response to connection, called mirror neurons. When we truly empathize with someone, our own brain flickers with the actual uncomfortable feelings that we are witnessing in someone else.
This is important to understand because it means that empathizing with someone else requires us to connect with our own sense of pain. Show of hands for those who enjoy sitting in their own uncomfortable emotions…
In our culture today, we are not really taught how to handle negative emotions well or to see them as necessary. So, it is often intimidating or too hard to bring ourselves to this place and truly connect with others. In these scenarios, we may put up barriers to protect ourselves from these painful feelings or altogether fail to transcend the difference between sympathy and empathy — actually coming alongside a suffering person. Sympathy looks like feeling FOR someone, whereas empathy is feeling WITH someone.
Digging Deeper: Where Does Our Fear Stem From?
These moments where we shy away from empathizing with others or retreat from situations where others show us empathy usually stems from unresolved insecurity or trauma.
Reflect on what things you do to prevent yourself from feeling what others are feeling. What exactly is your fear? How is this barrier affecting the relationships in your life? Soon to come: In Part Two of this blog series, I will discuss how we can learn to embrace empathy, remove barriers, and reap a harvest of openness.
If you realize that you struggle with giving or receiving empathy, therapy can play an important role in resolving the barriers that are holding you back. I’m happy to answer any questions you may have. You can connect with me here!