We hear a lot about empathy these days — how important it is to healthy relationships, how animals demonstrate it just as much as humans, how it works better than lecturing or punishment to create behavioral change.
So what, exactly, IS empathy?
Merriam-Webster describes it as “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions.”
Psychology Today calls empathy “the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. Empathy is known to increase prosocial (helping) behaviors.”
Arthur Ciaramicoli, who wrote the landmark book The Power of Empathy, takes it a step further, defining empathy as someone’s “ability to understand and respond to the unique experiences of another.” (emphasis mine)
When Lena begins weeping at the mention of her mother, our first thought might be that she must be grieving her mother’s death, and we may offer sympathy for her loss – or hurry to change the subject. Empathy helps us to check our assumptions, get closer, ask questions, and find out what’s really going on. Lena might be weeping with joy, because her mother’s cancer has just gone into remission. Or she might be weeping with relief, because her mother is coming to visit for the first time since Lena’s divorce.
Empathy is the moment when we focus on another being and strive to genuinely understand his or her experiences and perspectives, ideally managing to create a real connection. If our empathy is strong, that connection of understanding can help us to respond in a way that actually reflects the other person’s reality.
Of course, this is no easy task! We humans have a whole bunch of preconceived notions, judgments, and fears that tend to get in the way of connecting with the other’s truth. (Perhaps that’s why we love our companion animals so much – they seem to instinctively “read” our inner reality and respond without their own interpretations getting in the way.) When we do manage to clear all that junk aside and be willing to open deeply in sharing, we can experience the blissful, brief “oneness” of connection with another being.
It’s blissful because, even if we’re connecting around an experience of profound pain, we’re being lifted out of our essentially solitary reality and remembering that we are not, in fact, alone in the universe.