I talk a lot about empathy. As vital as it is to our relationships, it was a concept that took me 30 years to learn. Since I lived most of my life not understanding empathy and how important it is, I was beyond excited when I began seeing the effects of empathy in my relationships. For me, it was one of those “best kept secrets” that the world hid from me. Now I see it as a super power! I have the ability to connect with people! Unbelievable!
If you value empathy, you know all about the benefits. It gives us the ability to connect with people’s hearts, to understand their feelings and connect with those deeper places in our hearts that relate to what others are going through. It lets someone know that they’re not alone; someone understands them.
While the goal of empathy is connection, there’s also another benefit of empathy. Contrary to fixing someone, peace-keeping, or advice-giving, empathy keeps the responsibility of the emotions on the person walking through them. Empathy says, “That’s hard. I’m so sorry you’re going through that, but I’m here for you. I can’t fix it, but I’ll allow you to take all the time necessary to process because I’m not afraid of your emotions.”
I practice this with my kids all the time. My 4-year-old doesn’t get her way, so she has a little fit. If I didn’t understand the power of empathy, I would be tempted to fix the problem for her. “Here! Just have the candy! Please, just be happy!” Instead, I allow her to feel the pain of not getting her way. I allow her to process through it in her own way (as long as it’s not destructive). When she cries about it, I take her in my arms and say, “I know, baby. It’s so hard when don’t get what we want. It makes me sad too when that happens to me.”
The empathy I give her actually helps guide her through her own process. It communicates that she’s not alone and, most importantly, that she is fully accepted–emotions and all. My daughter is still young, so her processing is a lot messier than my older children’s processing. And that’s ok.
Before I understood the benefits of empathy, I dreaded moments like these. Add to that my lack of boundaries, and I was a sad case. I took on the responsibility of all the emotional needs around me. Instead of empathizing, I tried to fix because I wasn’t comfortable with emotions like sadness, anger, stress, or pain (yes, I consider that an emotion). So, my “helping” was actually no help at all. All my fixing was for the purpose of stopping the emotions of others that made me uncomfortable. What that communicates to others is, “You’re unacceptable if you show strong emotions. In fact, you’re so bad that I need to fix you.”
Everything felt like a need to me. Every emotion that came out of my husband or my children felt like a tug for my attention. “Fix me! Fix me!” This usually resulted in angry outbursts or running to my room to cry and be alone. I didn’t know how to handle it.
The reason it felt like such a burden is because I was taking on responsibility that wasn’t mine. That’s the first lesson in boundaries–take responsibility for what is under your authority (control) and don’t take responsibility for what is not under your authority. It’s funny how often we get these things confused.
When I began understanding boundaries, I began having more compassion for others, including my family. No longer did I feel angry and overwhelmed by all the “needs”. I felt in control of myself and I felt comfortable with others displaying “negative” emotions because I knew it was not my responsibility to fix them.
To end, I want to share an under-appreciated scene from Inside Out modeling what empathy looks like. Notice how Joy first tries to distract (fix) Bing Bong from his grief.
If you want detailed instruction and examples of showing empathy, I recommend this video with Jennifer Kolari. This teaching has truly changed the way I parent and interact with others.
For more on empathy, read Dense: Living in the Land of Unspoken Rules and Empathy & Boundaries: How to Keep Your Cool in Difficult Situations.
For more on boundaries, I have lots of blog resources here.
For recommended books, read 8 Books You Need to Read for Emotional, Relational, and Spiritual Growth.