On why empathy is important…

A few months ago I went through a rough patch in life.

The church campus where my husband was a part-time pastor closed, and I spent a long time dealing with that loss (I wrote about that here).

Being active in our church, we have an amazing group of friends who are incredibly supportive. During the church closing, I reached out to our friends and mentioned that the closing was really hitting me hard.

I was surprised when our close friends did not seem to be responding in a way that I though reflected the empathy I needed. I was confused that our friends seemed to be falling short. It was especially strange because we have, quite possibly, the best group of friends for which you could ever ask. When you’re sick, they’ll bring food. When you need prayer, they’re a message or call away. I wanted someone to say, “That situation sounds so difficult. Thanks for telling me. I’m here for you.” (I’ve since talked to my friends about this… I mentioned they’re amazing? Part of the issue was me not properly asking for help. I’ll write more about that later).

That experience forced me to reflect on an important question I think we should all ask ourselves: am I good at being empathetic?

The last time I took a personality assessment, one thing that stood out was that I value accurate information over feelings. If someone says something I know to be incorrect, it is more important to me to correct that person than it is for me to value that person’s feelings. In high school, one of my friends was telling me about a difficult situation they felt they were having with their parent. Rather than consider how my friend was feeling, I remember correcting that person when they told me details about a story I knew were incorrect. I can be such a dick sometimes.

I can also think of dozens of times where people have told me about something difficult they’ve gone through, and I can remember not responding as well as I could have. I can think of times where I could have listened rather than talked, where I should have been kind but was impatient, and where I tried to one-up instead of empathize.

Am I good at being empathetic? I’m not terrible, but I need to be better because I am falling short.

My experience after the church closing also led me to ask what I believe is one of the most important questions in the world: why are some people better at giving empathy?

Sympathy isn’t empathy.

Empathy fuels connection – while sympathy drives disconnection. Click here for a video on the topic that I love.

And here’s a nice summary of what is empathy. Empathy occurs in communication when there is:

1)      perspective taking

2)      staying out of judgement

3)      recognizing emotion and then

4)      communicating that emotion back to other people

But what makes someone have the ability to be empathetic? (I wrote about this before too).

It turns out that the most empathetic people, are those that have been through the most difficult situations. David DeSteno, a professor at Northeastern University who specializes in social psychology, noted the following in his article from the New York Times:

“those who had faced increasingly severe adversities in life — loss of a loved one at an early age, threats of violence or the consequences of a natural disaster — were more likely to empathize with others in distress, and, as a result, feel more compassion for them.”

However, in his article, DeSteno goes on to note that studies have also found that:

“Living through hardship doesn’t either warm hearts or harden them; it does both. Having known suffering in life usually heightens the compassion we feel for others, except when the suffering involves specific painful events that we know all too well.”

Simply put… if Mr. X has been through a lot of tough shit, he’ll likely be more empathetic – unless you’re telling Mr. X about a situation he’s already been through.

When I first read about this twist on empathy, I just sat on in – pondering over its merits. Then, a few weeks ago I noticed it playing out in my own mind. One of my co-workers was telling me about how she had too much work to do. An empathetic response would’ve been, “Thanks for telling me. It does sounds like you have a lot going on. Can I help you?” However, I had a ton of work to do as well so I said, “Tell me about it- I’m so busy.”

The moment the words left my mouth I realized what I’d done. Gah, I can be such a dick sometimes.

Empathy is important because people are the most important things in the world. God created more than one human because we were meant to live in connection with each other. If we were never meant to connect, we would live on islands. When we fail to give empathy, we fail at connecting. We miss an opportunity to share ourselves with another human being.

My plan for the next year is get better at being empathetic. When someone needs to connect with me – and I am able – I’m going to try. I hope you’ll consider trying too.

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