Hello, friends! I’m so glad you’re here and hope you’re feeling well and finding joy. I’m writing this from under a blanket with the curtains open so I can look at the white stuff, our first snowstorm, while trying not to think about shoveling or driving in it. If you’re dealing with snow today, my heart goes out to you.  That, by the way, is empathy. Even though I’m not currently shoveling snow, I can imagine how cold and heavy it is and what a pain it is to have to deal with it. Today’s post is all about empathy; we’re taking a deep dive into the most important skill you can have (if you want to make relationships work, that is).

WHAT IS EMPATHY

Empathy is trying to understand things from another person’s perspective. It’s about trying to connect with what another person is feeling and validating that. It sounds like “that must be hard; I’m sorry” and “You have every right to be angry”. It’s not about agreeing with the person’s perspective, it’s about validating their right to have their own perspective and reaction. It is NOT about offering a solution or trying to make them see that they’re being silly. Avoid using the word “but” when you’re trying to be empathetic.

WHY IS EMPATHY IMPORTANT

Empathy is your best bet for making people feel heard which makes a big fat memory in their brains that you’re a person who is on their side and a trustworthy friend. If relationships are a bank account, using empathy makes a big deposit. The next time you ask a favor or need them to understand where you’re coming from, they’re much more likely to try to empathize with you. It helps us build connections to others, rather than seeing things as “us vs. them” or “we vs. they” which, I think most forms of spirituality would argue, is better for your soul and your connection to the human race as a whole. Also, empathy is a pretty good argument stopper. If someone is angry and you validate their anger, it often takes the sharpness out of their tone. Everyone wants to feel heard.

EMPATHY VS. SYMPATHY

Likewise, empathy is not the same as sympathy. Sympathy sounds like “oh, you poor thing” but empathy sounds like “you’re going through a lot and I admire you for being so brave”. Sympathy is pity and pity is the opposite of respect. Sympathy says “I don’t think you can handle this”, empathy says “you’re struggling but I have faith you’ll figure it out”.

HOW CAN YOU EMPATHIZE IF YOU’VE NEVER BEEN THROUGH IT

One question that therapists get is “you’ve never been through this! How can you possibly help me?”. Let’s go back to the snow shoveling analogy. I don’t have arthritis or mobility issues but I am a fat person and know what it’s like to huff and puff while shoveling. Just because I haven’t experienced the pain of arthritis or mobility issues, doesn’t mean I can’t take my own fear of falling on the ice or having a health emergency while shoveling and extrapolate to what it might be like to fear the pain that will only keep getting worse because of the cold and all the work involved. Empathy is like a muscle- the more we use it, the better we get at using our own experiences of emotion to try to figure out what the other person might be feeling.

HOW IS EMPATHY DIFFERENT THAN MAKING EXCUSES

Balancing boundaries and empathy is a skill that takes a lot of practice to hone. It’s very easy for your “that must have been hurtful”-type empathy statements to become self-doubt about your own right to have feelings and hold people accountable. It is perfectly acceptable (and healthy) to say “you must feel hurt and I’m sorry. I need to maintain my boundaries for my own health and that was unacceptable” (for example, when you tell someone that you’re mad that they did something inappropriate and aren’t used to being called out.

I thought I’d end this post with some empathetic statements you can practice using. It’s not a language we’re taught well when we’re younger, so many of us need practice.

  • “I feel __________ hearing you talk about this. I can only imagine how (hopeless/sad/angry/hurt/betrayed,etc) you feel.”
  • “That sounds awful. I’m so sorry you’re going through it”
  • ” That must be hurtful”
  • “No wonder you’re upset”
  • “That would make me angry, too”
  • “You should be proud of yourself for handling it so well! That must have been hard”
  • “My heart hurts just hearing that”

Try one or two of these out and give it a go. You’ll be surprised by the difference it makes in your relationships. Stay warm, take care and I’ll see you soon!

Connect with Perspectives Therapy Services if you want to build your own empathetic skills.

Kayla Valley is a Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW) who works at the Highland location of Perspectives Therapy Services. She became a therapist to help people struggle with the depression and anxiety that she understands intimately. She loves being a Michigander and is an avid sewist who loves spending time with her cats and sugar gliders.

Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland and Fenton, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Additionally, we offer psychiatric care in the form of evaluations and medication management. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.