Empathy - so crucial and yet so hard to maintain



I have been meaning to write a post about empathy for some time but I notice how there is some resistance in me. I think I am afraid not to do it justice as it is such a big and important topic, both for me and - as I believe - for humanity as a whole. The truth is I am concerned about our capacity for empathy in these testing times. I don't have all the answers. I am missing many answers, in fact. I am not used to being so out of my depth. I would like to think with you about how we can continue to cultivate empathy, especially now, when fear and isolation seem so widespread. Let this be a starting point for a conversation that may take several more posts and feedback from you.


Different themes are connected in my mind with different client interactions. The topic of empathy brings up one particular client who came to see me because of his struggles with anxiety. This was many years ago. What stood out to me about this client was how he could talk about himself with such honesty and insight which touched me deeply. He was a highly sensitive man and openly explored with me how his anxiety was affecting him and his romantic relationship.


He explained how he noticed that when he was feeling particularly anxious, his normally strong empathy would, as he put it, simply go out of the window. It would literally disappear into thin air. All over sudden, he would shut out his partner and totally isolate himself in his mind. He gave the example of a romantic dinner which had felt warm and connected at first. Suddenly, something his partner said triggered a spiral of anxious thoughts in his mind that completely carried him away from the conversation. He noticed how in the space of a few seconds he changed from a warm and empathic partner into a quiet and self-centered individual that came across as snappy and disinterested. He honestly admitted how when being filled with fear he couldn't care less about his partner's thoughts and opinions. He described how his anxiety wrapped itself around his mind like layers and layers of cloth that muffled out any external voices, including those of the people he loved. Like a few drops of black ink in clear water, his anxiety would spread quickly and become all consuming, leaving no space untouched, clouding all consideration for others. My client thoroughly disliked himself in those moments. He could see how he was changing and yet felt unable to stop it.


As I said, this was many years ago. Already then, anxiety was one of the main issues clients came to see me about. For some, it was a specific anxiety they would be struggling with, for others their anxiety issues were of a more general nature. Whatever the nature of my clients' anxiety, reflecting back on this time, what I notice now is that the world around us and the therapeutic space I was able to create felt a lot more solid. I was more grounded, and as a consequence, was able to share more of my own inner strength and calm with my clients. From this position, it seemed much easier to develop helpful and healing strategies together.


Today's world doesn't feel very solid or secure. Clients tell me how they are longing for a piece of positive news, how some of them are starting to disengage from the media altogether as it is just so scary and depressing. And anxiety features much more prominently in all of my clients' accounts. It weaves itself as a thin recurring thread through many of their narratives – their own bouts of anxiety that they are trying to keep a handle on and those of their loved ones. And some of these are clients that didn't speak much about anxiety when they first contacted me. There are fears about their own health and that of their parents, children, friends or wider family; fears about making the wrong decisions in a climate of intense uncertainty, for example in relation to finances or careers; relationship worries, in particular around different needs and boundaries... Everything just seems much more unclear and unsettled. And especially for those of us who are more planned in nature and who feel held and comforted by routines and structures, the current level and pace of change is confusing and terrifying in its own right.


What happens to our empathy in these times? How can we keep it strong when there are so many moments of fear and anxiety? How can we stop it from going straight out of the window when we feel engulfed by our anxious thoughts? I am seeing more and more situations when anxiety overrules empathy, and they concern me. I am not sure if I am seeing more of them because I am looking out for them more. So please challenge me! Especially when it comes to families and couples, I see differing views around health divide and undermine relationship ties. I see physical health being prioritized over mental health. Now, one could argue that historically, physical health has often seemed easier to deal with as it appears much more tangible and manageable. Nevertheless, my sense is that as we feel an ever growing threat to our physical health, this comes at a cost to our mental health awareness – both for ourselves and others. It seems to me that as we are faced with numbers of deaths and illness, our survival instinct is activated and mental health considerations are easily considered a luxury.


If we experience a sense of connection by sharing our feelings, tapping into that emotional awareness both for ourselves and for others remains crucial. So let's think together how we can maintain and strengthen our empathy. What I know from theory, research and practice is that people differ in their level of empathy – this is in part because of their personality and in part because of the socialization they received – a mix of nature and nurture. What this means is that while our personality may make us more or less empathic to start with, we all have the ability to strengthen our empathy further. In the same way, however, our empathy can impoverish and decline if we don't attend to it.


Exercise:

The simplest way to train our empathy is to ask ourselves: How is this person feeling right now? Try this when being in conversation with someone you care about, for example your partner, friend or family member. If possible, in addition to the words the person is saying, notice their body language and tone of voice, their gestures and facial expression. Zoom out of your own thoughts and feelings for a moment and listen to the other person fully. Using the four main categories of feelings, consider if they are happy, sad, anxious or angry. Offer a simple empathic statement: 'You are happy/sad/anxious/angry because …' and include a short paraphrase of the content of their expression. Observing the other person closely, see if you can find a more differentiated feeling word, for example: 'You are not just happy, you are over the moon.' Bear in mind that as we differ in our ability to experience empathy, we also differ in how much we benefit from receiving it. I have found that while people who are naturally less empathic may look for a more solution focused approach in crisis, they still value to have their feelings acknowledged once a situation has calmed down. Please also note that we may be getting it wrong. Some people are easier to read than others, and some of us find it harder to read others. My experience as a therapist tells me that even if we get it wrong, expressing our empathy deepens the conversation and invites the other to clarify their feelings. It shows that we are trying to understand! If you are having trouble reading someone, you can caveat your empathic statement: 'If I am understanding you correctly/If I hear you you right, you are feeling angry because ...'


Feedback:

What happened after you offered your empathic statement? Did it open or close the conversation? What effect did it have on your own feelings and your understanding of the other person? How did the other person respond?