Empathy—The Ability to Connect, for Better or Worse

By Jill Bajorek, LCSW

Most of us can understand a general idea of what someone else is experiencing, but a lot of us can achieve a more intense level of understanding. Many people consider themselves “empaths”, which we use in a colloquial sense to describe someone who has the ability to deeply understand what someone else is going through, and consequently feel those related emotions. This isn’t the same as simply feeling sympathetic for someone, which can sometimes lead to giving personal advice as someone who is separate (“Well, if it were me I would…”). Empathy would be seeing someone hurt and feeling a lot of pain yourself. Someone with a high capacity for empathy is able to feel someone else’s emotional state as if it is their own.

This can often be useful, such as relating to a friend who is upset even if you wouldn’t be upset for the same issue. We can perceive the situation and feel what it would be like for them. This would help us hear them and either provide advice or even align ourselves with them for a sense of comfort and connectedness. This typically builds stronger bonds between people as it not only lets people open up, but shows some vulnerability which can bring people closer together.

Therapists utilize empathy to understand how something affects our clients, regardless of how we would feel about it in our personal lives. We attempt to align ourselves with the person on the other side to gain a deeper understanding of what it feels like to be them. This is useful for the process so we can center our perspective on the client.

Alternatively, having a high level of empathy can also be a pitfall for a lot of people when those empathic feelings become overwhelming and consuming. Our minds start to react as if those feelings really are ours, and in some cases, it can cause us to drastically align ourselves with someone who is causing uspain. This can cause conflicting feelings within because it becomes confusing which feelings are ours and which ones we are having from identifying with the other person. It can cause us to lose sight of our own needs and identity. Psychologically speaking, this isn’t always a conscious decision. For a myriad of reasons, many of us may be more prone to putting aside what we need in order to help the other. While this can be useful in relationships and for people we care about, we need to see it as problematic when we begin to lose who we are. Not only can we can ultimately harbor resentment towards the other person, but we can end up neglecting ourselves.

Working on self-awareness can help with differentiating between healthy empathy and the kind where you are focused more on the other person’s needs. This can be achieved through many ways, including self-care, meditation, and of course therapy. We at Encircle can help with recognizing healthy thought patterns, and encouraging self exploration so you have a better understanding of yourself.

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