There is a good and bad, a light and dark side of empathy. Empathy helps to understand and identify what others feel. You create a safe space for them to be open and comfortable in order that they disclose more freely. It says to others, ‘I care’ and ‘I want to understand how you feel’. The purpose is not to mirror what someone feels, as that turns empathy into something it should not be, and that’s not good for you.
You can experience empathy by noticing a person’s body language and voice, which also includes being open to the emotional energy vibrating between you. You sense not only what people feel but also what they need. You can tell when they need attention, acknowledgment, or an offer of help. You grasp when they want you to back off and give them space or when they want you to quietly stand by. You know when they are impatient to move on or if they want to take more time. With empathy, you will feel their stress, anxiety, and anger in your body. You might feel their pain emotionally and physically.
If you let these emotions linger, your body and mind can be emotionally hijacked. Taking on other people’s feelings so that you may live their experience can make you susceptible to feelings of depression or despair. When you take on the feelings expressed to you, not only will this lead to burnout, you can break the bond of trust you aim to strengthen. When you embody other people’s emotions, you may feel the need to fix their problems and make them feel better. Unless people want your help, your reaction will push them away no matter your intention. They might feel less understood or even disrespected. What you believe is “being supportive” could undermine their sense of safety and trust, and they won’t feel they can fully disclose or express themselves with you.
Open nonjudgmental awareness is the capacity to remain receptive to whatever might pass into your thoughts, view, hearing or feeling and to do so in a non-critical way. You notice when emotions begin to arise in your body. You might name the emotion and offer what you sense to the person to help him or her better understand the experience. Then you relax your body and let the emotion subside. Let it go! It is not your experience or feelings. This belongs to the other person and your role is to help them process and ‘package’ them.
Non-reactive empathy is especially useful when you feel the urge to jump in and fix people, helping them see what they should feel and do instead. This might arise from empathy, or you could be judging the person’s beliefs. Accept the beliefs of others without judging those beliefs. You don’t have to agree with them-just remain open and mindfully aware of them. Accept, appreciate, and encourage expression in others by observing our reactions and letting them go. If you notice that you are emotionally reacting, you can foster this open, non-judgmental awareness with the following exercise:
Relax – Breathe and release the tension from your body.
Detach – Clear your mind.
Center– Take your awareness to the center of your body just below your belly button. Feel yourself breathe to clear the mind.
Focus – Choose one or two keywords that represent how you want to feel. Curiosity and compassion foster non-reactive empathy.
When your own emotions distract you, breathe and recall your keywords to maintain that sense of trust and connection. Allowing others the safe expression of emotions could help them diffuse their feelings and see a possible path forward. That’s it!
Empathy can take a life of its own and turn inward. If someone is feeling angry as they are disclosing an experience, revealing traumatic experiences, or disclosing unresolved feelings, even though you understand that anger, do not allow their anger to become yours. Because you have created a safe space and built trust with him or her, you are being relied upon to maintain your composure, your calm, rational, non-judgemental state. Your objective aim is to help the other person find their own solutions, make their own choices and understand his or her role in that decision-making process.
Too much empathy is different from having compassion for someone. It is at the end of the continuum of positive regard or unconditional acceptance. Possessing too much empathy undermines your objectivity, and thus derails the nature of the relationship. Whether friend, therapist or parent, when someone feels safe with you and feels they can trust you, first and foremost listen, reflect and offer feedback. If expressing anger, avoid and refrain from also feeling that anger, for that makes a volatile combination. Don’t undermine your role, but rather be mindfully empathic. Be that sounding board! Be a voice of reason!