There is a lot of talk about empathy and its importance in building strong relationship, but what is it and how do we maintain it? Often empathy can be developed when we are having an easy time with others close to us, when we can be in our comfort zones, but empathy can be most powerful in bridging apparently conflicting views.
Empathy can be defined as understanding another from within.. it’s as though we can see things from their perspective, dropping our own. It makes another person feel deeply understood and this brings about deep bonding and care in relationship. There is a feeling of belonging and that we are all in this together. It is one of the most powerful indicators of healthy relationship.
When we witness our own experiences of sensations, feelings and thoughts with another without judgment or evaluation from them empathy is felt. We develop compassion towards ourselves and others, regardless of what we are going through. Compassion can be characterized by an acceptance of whatever is happening. When we experience another person feeling compassion towards us, we can feel a more calm and open presence in ourselves. A sense of collaboration prevails.
It is theorized that empathy might have its roots in maternal instinct, which is geared toward protection of offspring. Empathic behavior can be seen as an extension of that maternal caring which has advantages for survival.
But we may ask: who are we willing to empathize with? Does that person’s experience need to be similar to our own for empathy to occur? Or can we find ways to empathize with people whose behavior and world view are extremely different or even contrary to our own? How far does our empathy extend?
There is the ability of an empath to put themselves in another’s experience and to create meaning out of this experience. Empathy can be seen as being non verbal, immediate and with emotional resonance. Can we develop it or is it something that occurs as a result of embracing our own experience? It may depend on how attentive and present we are to our own feelings. As a result we can extend this presence to another and feel what they feel.
Through developing a sense of acceptance and compassion towards ourselves, we are more likely able to extend this towards those close to us regardless of what they are going through. Initially one may think that it would take a lot of energy to be empathic, but maybe it is easier to accept and not resist what is actually happening. I like to think of this as a responsive curiosity which embraces each moment as a gift. This curiosity can be described as: an availability and openness to all aspects of our (an other’s) experience, openness to one’s own experience in being with another, and the capacity to respond to another from this experience. This takes the intention away from doing and more into being, which gives us a more relaxed and open presence.