May 12, 2017
Imagine yourself standing in front of a group of people and suddenly crying, but they aren’t your tears. You might be asking, "Then whose tears are they?" What if I told you they are the tears of someone else in the group who has not yet processed their sadness? Your next thought might be, "That’s nuts." I thought so too until it became a common occurrence whenever I facilitated a group or private session as a life coach. I’d begin each session, centered, open, joyful and then find myself in tears. It didn’t take long for me to realize it was my empathy at play.
Empathy is the ability to step into someone else’s shoes to understand their feelings and perspectives. It differs from pity and/or sympathy in that with empathy you actually feel the pain or suffering of the other person. In sympathy, you recognize that another person is suffering.
The more aware and open we are to our own feelings without judgment, the more we are able to open up to other people’s feelings, and the less chatter we will have in our heads.
There are also two types of empathy. The first is cognitive empathy, which is when you are able to logically see the other person’s perspective without taking on the emotion. Then there is emotional or affective empathy, which is when you feel the person’s feelings as if they’re your own. (This is what I experience.)
Empathy has recently grown in popularity as the new approach to reducing anxiety, diminishing depression, elevating self-esteem, creating deeper connections and improving workplace productivity. You can find multiple TED Talks on empathy, and if you Google it, several articles about how to develop your empathy can be found. This all sounds exciting and awesome, but for those of us who are empathetic, the reality is quite different. The lack of understanding for HSPs, otherwise known as highly sensitive people, often leads to disconnection, low self-esteem and depression.
So the question becomes, how do we find the balance?
We find the balance through emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence (EQ) refers to the ability to perceive, control and evaluate emotions. Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer, in their influential article “Emotional Intelligence,” defined it as, “the subset of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions."
The more aware and open we are to our own feelings without judgment, the more we are able to open up to other people’s feelings, and the less chatter we will have in our heads. You can begin tapping into your emotions by noticing how you are feeling throughout the day. I used to set the mindfulness app on my phone to chime every hour to remind myself to check in and see how I was feeling. I’d often take a few deep breaths and notice where I was holding tension in my body. Sometimes, if I was experiencing a strong emotion, I’d be sure to pause before reacting and then choose a response. The pause is a life changer. The better I knew myself, the easier life became. You might be wondering, "But you still cry in groups." Don’t worry, I’m getting to that.
Once you have spent a little time getting to know your emotions, you can expand your empathy skills by doing the following:
• Stay open-minded to all sides of a conversation.
• Notice when someone doesn’t react emotionally the same way you would and stay curious, seeing if you can see it from their point of view.
• Practice saying with sincerity, “I’m sorry, I know how that feels.”
• Reduce the chatter in your head and be honestly interested in what the other person has to say.
• Ask questions and summarize what they are saying.
It’s been said 97 percent of all communication is non-verbal, so learning to read people’s body language will assist you in being able to see between the lines and have a deeper understanding of what might actually be going on with that person.
The last two elements of becoming more empathetic and raising your emotional intelligence are often overlooked but are key to expanding your consciousness or empathy/EQ. One is sharing how you truly feel (within reason). If you say you are fine with a frown, it's obvious you are not, so share your truth. With that being said, the second element becomes all the more important – stay aware of the effect you have on others. If you come into a room and the mood goes up or down, take note and see what changes you could make to get the effect you desire. If you notice people looking down or away while you’re telling a story, speed it up, change your tone, ask the person if you are boring them, stop telling the story. Take responsibility for yourself in your interactions.
And for those of us who are empaths? I often tell my clients, who are mostly empaths, to check themselves emotionally before entering large groups. Take a full emotional scan, so if your emotional state shifts during an interaction that is not directed toward you, you can be fairly certain it’s not you. There are energetic protections you can do as well, but I’ll leave that for another time.
Most importantly for all you empaths out there, embrace your gift. Your sensitivity, although oftentimes unacknowledged and misunderstood, is a gift. I just got back from seeing "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2," and in it, they introduce the character of Mantis. She is an empath, and when she touches someone, she knows what they are feeling and can help them process and bring temporary contentment to the person who is suffering. I completely relate to this character and have the same gift, except I don’t have to touch someone. It’s taken me 47 years to accept this about myself, and I can’t say I always have a complete handle on it. Before I knew what my gift was, I’d share people’s innermost feelings with them to their shock. I just thought, if I know, they must know, and it’s no big deal. That wasn’t the case, and I lost a few friends along the way. I’ve learned to share only when asked or when I’m in a session.
Empathy is a super power.
So you might be wondering, "What about those tears that aren’t yours?" When I was doing research for this article, I came across "The Power of Empathy" with Anita Nowak for TEDx Montreal Women, and during it, she says, “The same reward and pleasure centers in the brain when you are in service to others light up as do when you are taking cocaine, heroin or engaged in really great sex…” This made me laugh because I had started dealing with those tears by thinking about baseball. This helped neutralize the feelings just like it does for other things. It doesn’t always work and I’ve accepted my role to help others process by feeling their feelings. I’m also honest about what’s happening.
For us empaths and for those wanting to create more empathy, we will someday meet in the middle. We have a lot to learn from each other. Perhaps in time, we will go from being a dog-eat-dog world to a pack, working together with compassion, patience and an understanding that we all have different strengths and together we can create something extraordinary.