“E” is for Empathy

In the ABC’s for Living Well “E” can be for many things: enthusiasm, enjoyment, ease, energy. I decided on “empathy” because it is so multi-faceted. Learning about and understanding empathy, and the difference between empathy behavior and being an empath have helped me in my wellness quest. The awareness and intentional practice of empathy can be learned and applied in relationships of all kinds and especially when caregiving. It starts with willingness to “put yourself in another’s shoes.”

The word “empathy” comes from the Greek word empatheia. The root meaning of that word is pathos or feeling.  The prefix “em” means “in” or “into.”  Thus, empathy means to go into the feelings of another. Psychology describes three prevalent types of empathy as: cognitive (putting yourself in another’s shoes; perspective taking), emotional (to feel another’s feelings), and compassionate (to feel another’s pain and take action to mitigate the pain).

In her excellent book, SQ21- The 21 Principles of Spiritual Intelligence author, Cindy Wigglesworth, discusses the difference between apathy, sympathy, empathy, and compassion. I’m going to paraphrase my takeaway about these behaviors as follows:  Apathy says,I don’t care about you.” Sympathy says, “I see your suffering and I feel sorry or sad for you.” Sympathy may contain an element of pity. Empathy says, “I can put myself in your shoes; I feel what you do, be it joy or sadness.” Sometimes with empathy there is a need to distance ourselves from the suffering of others. Compassion takes empathy a step further. “I can feel what you feel and still maintain my center; offering kindness, solutions, or support without falling into despair.” From years in a profession that demands compassion, I am all about that. It feels natural to me.

In 2015 a friend recommended that I watch Sensitive – The Untold Story documenting Dr. Elaine Aron’s research on the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). I had learned much about empathy and being an empath in college psychology classes. Dr. Judith Orloff, often called “the godmother of the empath movement,” offers a wide body of material and support for empaths. After watching the HSP documentary, I felt that I was both an empath and an HSP on the empathic spectrum. This conclusion was a mixed bag because while it was validating, and helped to explain me to me, there is often a stigma around being “too sensitive” or “too nice.” I have come to peace with me being me. If you are a prone toward feeling others deeply, maybe some of these resources will be useful.

My blissful path

Those of us who are wired for compassionate empathy often have a hard time saying “no”! Finding a balance between compassionate service and self-care has been a long and winding road for me; those lessons could fill a whole book! The learning continues to this day and boundary setting has, by necessity, become a conscious practice. Some advice I can offer here is to take a good look at what brings you joy and what feels rejuvenating. If you are not doing some of both each and every day, you may be getting lost in overly empathetic behavior. Doing for others may feel wonderful, but self-care is important too. Finding the activities that truly soothe the heart and mind, then taking the time to indulge in them is key. A few of mine include long quiet snowy walks, naps with pups, cooking and baking, and creating beauty in any form. What are your favorite activities for soothing heart and mind? Are you indulging in them? If not, why not?

On the flip side of being overly empathetic is not having enough empathy. Words like “selfish” “callous” “uncaring” “aloof” or “narcissistic” are often used to describe people who appear to lack empathy. If you have had an interaction with someone lacking in empathy, you may come away feeling sad, frustrated, angry, or disappointed. That is understandable. Caregivers especially take note! If you are caring for someone lacking in empathy you may be experiencing a form of abuse. When this happens, it is helpful to have strategies for coping; counseling, intervention, or other support may also be needed.

The truth is that empathy does not come naturally to all people. Some people may be suffering from something that Douglas LaBier, Ph.D. calls Empathy Deficit Disorder (EDD). Like narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) people with EDD may not know that they are lacking in empathy. They may find that it is hard to maintain meaningful relationships, feel lonely, or isolated without knowing why. Dr. LaBier suggests that there are ways to retrain the brain to develop empathy skills that encourage deeper connectivity to others and thus, more satisfying relationships. You can explore this in Sharon Begley’s book on the topic, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves.

Speaking of the brain, something that has helped me to deepen compassion and empathy has been walking beside people in cancer treatment; especially brain cancer, and most especially glioblastoma multiforme. The prognosis for this diagnosis is from 15 to 18 months if the patient chooses all treatment protocols including chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. The treatments are palliative, but not curative. Each time I have been close to a patient with glioblastoma multiforme, something so miraculous occurs that it is worth mentioning here. It goes like this: The patient reaches a place where their quality of life is no longer acceptable to them, and they decide to stop treatment. Loved ones encourage the patient to keep going, keep fighting. The patient then finds a way to comfort loved ones and helps them to understand their decision. They say, “put yourself in my shoes.” Loved ones are brought up short by that request; humbled by it. They move into acceptance; even grace while steeling themselves for the inevitable loss that is sure to follow. That simple request for empathy holds sway if taken to heart and can be applied to anything in life.

Francis McDormand as Fern

I am leaving the discussion about empathy today with a movie suggestion. This is a film that you can fully enter and feel things that the characters are feeling:  contentment, longing, connection, anxiety, despair, sorrow, hope, adventure. The movie is Nomadland, a kaleidoscope of feelings from start to finish. This is a fictional work but has the feel of a documentary. Aside from a handful of Hollywood actors, it features nonprofessional actors playing characters who have lost their homes and taken up a nomadic life. The director, Chloé Zhao has magnificently captured a segment of American life that is foreign to most of us. In an amazing feat of film-making Ms. Zhao places us firmly in the shoes of the characters on screen. Having Francis McDormand’s incredibly authentic portrayal of the main character, Fern, was perfect casting. Fern takes us on a journey like no other. Through expert story telling this film gently, but powerfully reveals what is both tragic and full of grace after unimaginable loss. It is at once a quiet journey and a triumphant one; stark, yet full of beauty. Grab your popcorn and prepare for dive into empathy.

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