“You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.”
When thinking about how effective empathy is in relationships, I think about that one episode of Friends during that awkward time Rachel and Joey were kind of dating. Joey takes Rachel out on a date and they show each other their “moves.” Joey’s moves involve impressing his date with flattery and his supposed fame as an actor. Then Rachel does something he doesn’t expect. She asks where he grew up, followed by “And so were you close to your parents?” Joey proceeds to spill his guts about the tension between him and his dad as Rachel probes further, touches Joey’s hand, and says, “Gotta be rough” in her most empathetic voice.
This scene succeeds in its humor because both of their moves proved so effective that it had the other really buying into it, despite the fact that it was all pretend. What I appreciate about Rachel’s successful use of empathetic manipulation is that she gets Joey to open up about something personal as she provides a safe place for him to be open. Her empathy advances their bonding. Of course, they are already really close friends by this point in season 8, but this is the episode Joey really starts falling for her.
I came across a Forbes article by Bhali Gill called, “Empathy Is Crucial To Any Personal Or Professional Relationship -- Here's How To Cultivate It,” and I think the title says it all. Right away Gill asks, “Have you ever shared a painful or challenging experience with a friend, partner, colleague or boss and instead of feeling heard you left the conversation feeling worse off and misunderstood?” This is an important question to ask in any relationship you’re in because it gauges the empathy of the other person. When someone is not empathetic, it makes you feel more closed off and less willing to be open. However, when you feel like they not only understood your feelings, but actually felt what you felt, then it's comforting and makes you feel less alone.
There are three types of empathy:
- Cognitive Empathy: “the ability to understand how a person feels and what they might be thinking,” which helps us be better communicators
- Emotional or Affective Empathy: “the ability to share the feelings of another person,” which helps build emotional connections
- Compassionate Empathy or Empathic Concern: “moves us to take action, to help however we can”
As an American living during a time that feels fraught with division and explosive hatred particularly displayed on social media, this ranking may seem unbelievable. But then I also think about the generous altruism that happens each time we face a new disaster, despite how frequent these disasters may be. Americans have the ability to come together for movements to make social changes.
However, “a 2010 study by researchers from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research conducted by Ed O'Brien and Sara Konrath found higher levels of narcissism and lower levels of empathy among college-age students as compared to earlier generations of young adults.” Millenials, it seems, aren’t as empathetic as generations past. As a millienial, I would argue that this study has its merits and flaws.
It seems that the least empathetic of society tend to be younger and older adults, but the middle-aged are the most empathetic. Women in their 50s have the highest scores of empathy, which leads me to think maybe they are the ones who should be running the world. Just sayin’.
Throughout my research, it didn’t interest me so much the state of empathy the world is in, because I tend to think on a scale closer to home. What repeatedly came to my mind were my personal relationships, and that’s perhaps also because of recent discussions with those closest to me. I’ve lived with the motto that I can’t change the world, but I can affect those closest to me and in return hope they affect those closest to them. That to me is how real lasting change happens.
Empathy requires vulnerability and a genuine curiosity and care for other people. Most people live by the notion that if no one has cared or been open with them, then why should they be? Fortunately for me, I was raised to always think about how others feel and see their side. Though I come from a high conflict background, it was never directed toward me.
I remember when I was a child talking to my cousin who is a year older than me. I told her I wished my parents were as happy together as her parents, and she told me she wished her parents loved her as much as my parents loved me. That was heartbreaking to hear, but it made me feel like I had something that I had assumed everyone did, but the reality was that not everyone does. I’ve had both my parents’ unconditional love that has never wavered, and what’s more important is that I feel like I have it.
In Kathleen Cotton’s article, “Developing Empathy in Children in Youth,” she explains the kind of parenting that leads to empathetic children and the kind that doesn’t.
Parenting that helps in the development of a child’s empathy:
- Responsive, nonpunitive, and nonauthoritatian parents “have children who have higher levels of affective and cognitive empathy and prosocial behavior”
- “Reasoning with children, even quite small ones, about the effects of their behavior on others and the importance of sharing and being kind is effective in promoting empathy and prosocial behavior”
- “Parental modeling of empathetic, caring behavior toward children - and toward others in the children's presence - is strongly related to children's development of prosocial attitudes and behavior”
- “When children have hurt others or otherwise caused them distress, research supports the practice of giving explanations as to why the behavior is harmful and suggestions for how to make amends”
- “Parents encouraging school-age children to discuss their feelings and problems is positively related to the development of empathy in those children”
- “Threats and/or physical punishments meted out in an attempt to improve children's behavior are counterproductive”
- “Inconsistent care (e.g., inconsistency in parents' reactions to children's emotional needs) and parental rejection/withdrawal in times of children's emotional needs are both associated with low levels of empathy on the parts of the children”
- “Children from homes in which their fathers physically abuse their mothers have low levels of empathy”
- “The provision of extrinsic rewards or bribes to improve children's behavior is counterproductive”
When I am open, vulnerable, actively listen, and genuinely show care for another person, then it allows the other person to feel safe enough to be open with me too. These are traits my mother has as well and we often find it interesting how easily we can get people to cry in a good way. And it’s actually very simple, but it’s just not something people do very often. All I have to do is what Rachel does on her date with Joey – ask questions. The trick is to ask questions in a way that’s genuine and then listen attentively. Then people open up and tell me all kinds of stuff.
This worked recently when I asked a coworker how him and his girlfriend were doing. He admitted to me that they broke up, and I felt so sad for him. He then admitted he hadn’t told anyone yet, and eventually added he was too embarrassed to even tell his best friend. When we found a moment during our shift to talk a little more about it, I asked him if it was okay if I asked more about what happened and why he wouldn’t tell his best friend. He opened up to me and when he started tearing up, he stopped, gave me a hug, and left. Later he thanked me for listening and I was glad he at least got to talk to someone about what he was going through.
Most people in this kind of situation hear bad news, say something along the lines of, “I’m sorry,” and then move on. But that’s not how empathy works. I think most people either don’t want to or don’t know how to take on the emotional baggage of another person. It’s like my boyfriend tells me, “I’ve got my own stuff, why do I want to hear about anyone else’s?” He uses this same mentality the other way around as a reason for why he doesn’t like to be open with anyone, including the friends closest to him. “They have their own stuff going on, they don’t need to deal with mine,” is what he reasons. It’s a faulty reasoning.
Long ago, I used to think I never wanted to be a therapist because I had so much emotional baggage that I couldn’t possibly handle anyone else’s too. I think differently now. It’s not about taking on someone else’s baggage, because that isn’t healthy, and arguably that’s not really how empathy works. Empathy is temporarily joining someone in whatever they are feeling whether it be celebrating an achievement or going through a difficult time.
I think about the very brief time me and my boyfriend broke up, and somehow my roommate’s boyfriend ended up being the one helping me through it. It only happened because he was sleeping over at our apartment, but he couldn’t sleep. When he checked my roommate’s phone for the time, he saw the text I sent her that we broke up. Not long after I got home, I heard a knock on my door and thought it strange that my roommate was still up, because it was so late for her. It ended up being her boyfriend who spent the next few hours talking to me. He was the last person who I thought would be the one to comfort me, but he ended up being the one to sit with me in my sadness. We talked about how when someone’s sad and you want to help, you kind of have to be sad with them for a little bit.
Empathetic people cultivate a few different traits. Along with listening and joining someone in their feelings is also having an “insatiable curiosity about strangers” according to Roman Krznaric’s in her article, “Six Habits of Highly Empathic People.” She says, “Curiosity expands our empathy when we talk to people outside our usual social circle, encountering lives and worldviews very different from our own.” Empathy requires us to try and understand someone else’s perspective and the best way to do this is to be curious about where they are coming from.
But I think more than anything being open and vulnerable with someone is where empathy truly thrives. You can be curious and you can be a good listener, but to have an empathetic relationship and build a genuine connection, someone has to start out by being vulnerable first. I usually take on this task because I want others to feel safe with me, and I know that by me opening up first they can feel like they can open up too.
Practicing empathy is not an easy task for everyone, but what happens after it’s accomplished is that the world becomes a much less lonelier place. We can’t have meaningful connections without empathy, which is the reason I very easily strive so hard to be empathetic toward others. I constantly long for deep meaningful connection. It’s a need I have. I cannot be satisfied with shallow relationships because I feel too lonely and get depressed too easily.
My boyfriend, who has been the hardest person I’ve ever met to get to open up, admitted to me very recently that he feels like he can confide in me. He said it scares him, but it makes him feel good too. I understand that feeling, because the reason people are so afraid to be open and empathetic with others is the fear of pain and rejection. Thoughts like, “what if I open up, but then they go away?”; “what if I start caring about that person, but they don’t care about me?”; “what if I listen to this person but then don’t know how to fix it or what to say?” There are a lot more fears to add.
To all this, I think about when I was depressed and one time I told my best friend I was really upset about something. I don’t remember the specifics, but she asked if I was home and that she’d be right over. I said I wouldn’t be home for an hour. So, she parked in front of my house anyway and waited until I got there. I don’t think she knew how much it meant that she was already there when I got there. She told me once that she never knew what to do with me being so sad and she never thought she helped, but all I needed was her to be there and she was. In Brené Brown’s “On Empathy,” she says that sometimes we don’t need someone to say the right things or offer advice, “Because the truth is - rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”
How Empathetic Are Americans? Gender and Generation Matter
There Are Actually 3 Types of Empathy. Here's How They Differ--and How You Can Develop Them All
Developing Empathy in Children and Youth
*previously published on j.ilanaserna.wordpress.com 7/3/2019