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by Katie Bailey, MA, LPC

Empathy is the ability to understand and share in another person’s emotions. We all need healthy connections to other people – and empathy is an essential element of a healthy relationship. Empathy helps us respond well in various situations and having insight into another’s experience helps us choose our own appropriate behaviors. For example, when I try to give my child a hug when she is tired and cranky, she prefers to be left alone. She tells me, “No hugs now, Mommy.” My empathy kicks in, and I understand that there are times I don’t want hugs either and that’s okay. She’s not rejecting me; it’s not personal. My empathy allows me to say, “Okay, honey, I get it. No worries.” This also strengthens our relationship.

Can you have too much empathy?

Absolutely, there is such a thing as too much empathy. Our understanding of other’s feelings must be tempered with boundaries. We are not responsible for how other people feel; it’s not our job to keep everyone else happy. Like most traits, empathy is a continuum. For some people it comes easier than others.

Why do some people lack empathy?

When we are born, our brains are wired certain ways. Some of us are naturally more empathetic than others. Also, how well we can relate to others’ feelings comes from our life experiences. People that grew up in a family that didn’t ever talk about their emotions probably have a harder time having empathy as an adult. Traumatic experiences can stunt our empathetic response as well. Someone who has had an overwhelming experience and is numb to their own feelings will not be able to relate to other people’s feelings very well either.

Can empathy be learned?

Our brains are beautifully created, and indeed, with practice, we can learn new skills, even social and emotional skills like empathy. Here are some practical ways to boost your understanding of others:

  • Recognize & experience your own emotions. When we ignore our own feelings, and stuff them down, we also numb ourselves. When we are numb, we can’t connect to others. We all need close connections to people that matter in our lives – if you think you don’t, you are fooling yourself. Also, when we can experience our own emotions, we can use our own familiarity with those feelings to relate well to others. That’s empathy.
  • Learn a new skill. Start guitar lessons, train to run a 5k, learn to knit, try to paint like Bob Ross – whatever is out of the norm for you. You won’t get it right the first time, you’ll have to work at it. You will experience humility – a true understanding of yourself as an imperfect person. Realize we are all imperfect people.
  • Travel to different places. This could be to a different country around the world – or even to another neighborhood in the same town. For those of us in the suburbs of Philadelphia, how often do you go to the city? Do you know what it’s like to live in Kensignton? Or visit local groups near you that help people in need – food banks for example. There are people everywhere you live differently than you. Put yourself in new places to experience someone else’s reality.
  • Pay attention to relationships in the shows and movies you watch. How did the characters show that they cared for and understood each other? In the pilot episode of New Girl, the guys in the loft realize that Jess is being stood up by her date. They care about her, and they understand that is hurtful and embarrassing to be left alone at a restaurant. So, Nick, Schmidt and Coach hurry to the restaurant, say they are her dates, and don’t leave her alone. Their understanding and compassion for how Jess would feel compel them to action to help their friend. Of course, not all movies and shows are good examples – but just try to notice how different characters respond differently when they have empathy.
  • Ask questions AND listen to the answers. Be curious about the people in your life. Ask about their day, what they like and what they don’t, or even about their past experiences. How did they meet their spouse? Where is the farthest place they’ve visited? What do they enjoy doing in their free time? Ask questions, and listen to the answers not to respond, but to truly learn more about the other person. Even better, keep going and ask clarifying questions to deepen your understanding of the person’s answer.

Start Improving Relationships Today

Our team of experienced therapists at Lime Tree Counseling truly believe that our relationships with other people are what life is all about. We want to help you overcome obstacles to healthy relationships. We offer trauma therapy for anyone feeling stuck in the pain, fear and hurt of past events. We specialize in narcissistic and emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and Katie offers EMDR therapy. EMDR is a well-researched trauma therapy designed to help your brain stop skipping like a record on the past painful memories. We also offer anxiety treatment, marriage counseling, and cross-cultural counseling.

Please contact us today to set up a free 15-minute phone consultation or to schedule your first counseling session. There is hope for change.