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What is Empathy?
We often think of having sympathy for another person’s difficulties. However, sympathy is not the most helpful approach in an intimate relationship because it is based on seeing the situation through the filter of your own experience, rather than trying to understand the other person’s unique experience.
It is important in significant relationships to be able to empathise, which means truly seeing the other person’s feelings and situation from their viewpoint rather than from yours. It is possible to hold your own individual view while also demonstrating empathy for the other person’s perspective. Your partner will feel more accurately witnessed and understood, when you empathise, rather than sympathise.
Although many of us did not learn from our families to empathise with others, recent research has shown that the human brain is hard-wired for empathy. This has been demonstrated in studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology focusing on the development of “mirror neurons.”
If we experience pain or distress, the regions of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula become activated. When study participants observed others in painful situations, the fMRI images showed heightened activity in those same areas of the participants’ brains. In other words, seeing someone in pain caused pain for the participants themselves by means of mirror neurons. Evidence shows that 98% of the human population has this innate ability to empathise.
Many couples I see for relationship counselling, initially find this percentage hard to believe when they bring their unwilling and disengaged partners. But over the course of a few counselling sessions, the human need to connect and be connected takes over, unfolding opportunities to connect safely. This is backed by the wonders of neuroplasticity—the ability of the human brain to physically change through conscious efforts to create new patterns. Anyone can develop the ability to empathise with others through deliberate choices and practice.
Our society today places much value on independence and self-sufficiency. So much so that it has caused us to exist more and more in loneliness and isolation, leading to widespread lack in the development of the ability to empathise. Those with little or no empathy are unable to see situations from perspectives other than their own. In short, a deficit in empathy keeps them isolated and disconnected from meaningful relationships due to the inability to read subtle emotional cues, both verbal and nonverbal. For example, a lover who purses their lips in annoyance would be interpreted by their partner to be rejecting. If the other person attempts to take a break in a moment of frustration, the partner can interpret this pause as dismissive or abandoning. Lack of empathy is also linked to depression. Depression is marked by being cut-off from one's own feelings, negative or positive.
Fortunately, the research on neuroplasticity demonstrates that we can choose to improve our ability to empathise with others. It is even possible to assess our current level of empathy abilities by taking an online test called Reading the Mind in the Eyes. In this test, you are asked to look at images of people’s eyes and choose which emotion you think is shown by the person in the image, based only on the expression in the eyes. There are 36 images. If you would like to try it for yourself, take the empathy quiz and come back to the rest of this article.
Our mirror neurons help us respond appropriately in most social interactions. However, the experience of feeling emotional pain due to others’ suffering is not very pleasant. For some people, especially those who feel they have too often been exposed to other people’s pain, it may seem necessary to distance themselves from suffering by emotionally disconnecting. This can happen in any type of relationship, from friendships to co-workers to intimate partners.
In some rare cases, people may inherently lack empathetic abilities due to conditions such as Asperger’s syndrome or an intellectual disability. However, it is more commonly the case that individuals lack the ability to show empathy for others if their family members were not able to provide empathetic connections for them as children, such as when a parent has postnatal depression, an anxiety disorder, or a history of unresolved trauma. It may also be true that in large families, children simply may not be able to receive empathy from overwhelmed parents. The above is clearly evident in clients that we see for individual counselling. Read more about childhood difficulties in attachment.
Empathy in Relationships
A person who is not skilled in empathising with others can have great difficulty in maintaining close relationships, particularly intimate partnerships. Someone who fails to empathise tends to be unyielding and unable to value other people’s feelings, perspectives or insights. Their partner may feel afraid of being judged harshly or rejected for attempting to be emotionally vulnerable. This is one factor that leads to a sense of disconnect in intimate relationships. It is all too easy to find ourselves in the position of failing to empathise with our partner.
One way to remedy this issue is by switching focus using a two-stage approach. First, when you notice that you are at odds with your partner, start by placing your immediate focus on your internal experience, including the emotions you are feeling (such as anger, fear and disappointment) as well as the physical sensations that accompany your emotions (such as shallow breathing or clenching your jaw). Give yourself a brief break by standing up to stretch, taking a deep breath, or having a sip of water.
Then, switch your focus from your experience to your partner. Notice your partner’s body language and listen to your partner’s words, focusing entirely on them with an attitude of curiosity. Many people find that this method is effective in enhancing their ability to connect with their partner.
When we are overwhelmed by anger or other strong emotions, we are in a defensive mental state and therefore less able to empathise. Intentionally switching focus by first looking internally and then shifting externally to our partner gives us the ability to re-set our internal empathy switch.
If, on the other hand, your intimate partner seems to be lacking the ability to empathise with your experience, it can be hard to know how to reconnect. Try these two suggestions to teach your partner how to understand your feelings and perspective:
1. Let your partner know that you want to feel heard and witnessed. Ask for a few minutes of "listening time" during which your partner agrees not to discuss or give advice, only to listen and acknowledge your experience.
2. State that it is too difficult to discuss the problem right now and ask for a physical connection instead. A silent hug or cuddling together can be healing in itself.
How You Can Learn Empathy
If you have not received the empathy that you need from others in your life—whether your family as a child (emotional neglect), your network of friends, or your intimate relationships—it can be difficult to provide empathy for others. For many people, this difficulty can block them from having satisfying and supportive relationships with significant others.
One route to developing better empathy and improving relationships is to learn from an empathetic, attuned therapist. The science of neuroplasticity shows us our brains can re-learn these empathic skills, so it is never too late to build the relationships you want.
A trained psychologist or counsellor in neuroplasticity can help you to tune into yourself and then, in turn, allow you to tune into your partner, children, and other important people in your life. Counselling and psychotherapy provides a safe space where you can build your empathetic skills to create stronger and more fulfilling connections in your relationships. We have taken many of our clients through this journey and can do the same for you. So contact us for a confidential discussion today.