There is a wonderful scene in the romantic comedy/drama The Story of Us (1999). Ben, a separated father of two, has a powerful flash of empathy for his wife, Katie, which floods him so completely that he buys some roses and shows up unannounced on her door to propose a reconciliation.
What is empathy? How is it different from sympathy? Can it be taught? Finally, can one have too much empathy?
In my view, empathy is the third rung of a four-rung ladder of “felt feeling for others.”
At the very bottom of the ladder is a pity. Pity is sadness for another person’s suffering sometimes including some level of contempt based on the perception that the object of that pity may be weak or inferior.
The next rung up on the felt feelings ladder is sympathy.
Sympathy is feeling bad for someone. Sympathy often comes along with what Brine Brown describes as “silver lining” in which the sympathetic person offers advice or suggested perspective shifting i.e. “It always could be worse” or “Have you called a therapist?” Unfortunately, unsolicited advice is often rejected by the recipient as it may appear demeaning or patronizing.
Empathy, the third rung up from the bottom, is feeling with someone. The empathic person first looks within themselves to connect with a similarly wounded part of themselves before sharing an empathic response.
This process allows them to simply say comments such as “I am so sorry. It must be awful” rather than offering advice. Empathy is often felt deeply by the recipient and helps reduce their sense of isolation.
Finally, at the top of the ladder is compassion. Compassion might be defined as “empathy in action” in that the compassionate person uses their empathic understanding to guide them towards helpful action. For example, the compassionate physician might act on their empathy toward a patient in a domestically abusive environment to provide him or her with phone numbers and a contact name at a shelter.
The power of empathy in romantic relationships
Empathy is an essential piece of emotional intelligence. Sadly, it is not a given that your romantic partner possesses empathy – in fact, individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome sorely lack empathy which might account for the high divorce rate in such marriages. Also, many men seem to struggle with showing empathy being more inclined to offer advice than to “feel.”
If your spouse lacks empathy or you feel that the lack of empathy in marriage is gnawing at your relationship happiness, it is time to seek marriage counseling or take up a marriage course as either will enable you with invaluable tools to deepen communication and empathy in your relationship.
How to deepen empathy in your marriage and other areas of life
Can empathy be learned? Yes, with motivation.
Learning empathy often begins with being more attuned to your own emotions. I often recommend that interested parties looking to increase empathy keep a feeling journal or use the app to begin logging their own emotions.
If you become better at identifying emotions within yourself, you will be better able to see them in others, including your spouse, particularly if you improve your powers of observation. One way to do that is to look at people’s faces in crowds and attempt to surmise what they may be feeling.
At the home front, when you put yourself in your partner’s shoes, it will be easier for you to understand the reason behind their actions and decisions.
Ways to be more empathetic to your partner
You can develop and deepen empathy in your relationships by learning to withhold judgment.
You need to learn to believe that your partner is a savvy individual who has taken decisions or acted with a sense of their own judiciousness. Reserving your judgment helps them feel that you are a considerate partner and do not wish to belittle them even if their actions don’t necessarily lead to the desired results.
Also, it would be helpful to pitch in support in their day to day responsibilities and share some of their chores. Empathy is a high-order relationship skill and it takes time to build it, so don’t feel daunted if you are not able to able to master it overnight.
Can people have too much empathy?
Yes. I have several “empaths” in my practice and they often do not know how to say no to others and practice self-care. Parents with too much empathy may have a very hard time saying no to their children.
Can people learn how to be less empathic?
Yes, if they practice what I like to call “the intelligent heart”, i.e. using their logic to help counter their automatic response to enable others out of a misplaced fear of hurting them.
For example, your child might protest mightily if you impose limits on their use of the cell- phone so an overly empathic enabler might need to tell themselves that unlimited cell phone use has been found to be harmful to children. This rational understanding may help empaths override their natural inclination to not cause harm out of misplaced empathy.
So, is empathy a friend or a foe? Actually, it is both friend and foe.