Welcome back to the Therapy Spot, everyone! On this week’s episode, I’d like to walk you through an exercise I did with two of my clients. The wife in this married couple had a lot of strong feelings surrounding an upcoming life change. Her husband struggled to show up with empathy, and instead tried to “problem solve” his wife’s bad feelings away.
Empathy connects us with others (and ourselves!) in a way that sympathy does not. Empathy, to quote Carl Rogers, is “an accurate understanding of (another’s) world as seen from (their) inside. To Sense (another person’s) world as if it were your own.” To feel empathy for someone else is to sit with them in their emotion, and to understand.
Problem solving is not empathy — it’s a response. Responding doesn’t always build connection. When you relate to someone, however, you build a connection. So join me today, and hear how this couple came to a place of natural empathy in their relationship.
Building a Bridge With Empathy
I had two goal as I worked with this married couple.
- To slow down the interaction. When strong emotions come up, or we get blended with a part, things “speed up.” By slowing down, I had the space to coach the husband in showing up with an empathetic response.
- To bring mindfulness and compassion to him as he responded in the new way. Really, he already had these tools! He just needed to learn how to bring them out for these kinds of interactions.
While I worked to get the couple into a place of empathetic dialogue, I thought about an old British nursery rhyme. It’s called “This Is the House That Jack Built.” Despite the title, the nursery rhyme is not about Jack, or even about the house. It tells the story of connections.
This is the house that Jack built.
This is the cheese that lay in the house that Jack built.
And this is the rat that ate the cheese
That lay in the house that Jack built.
This is the cat that chased the rat
That ate the cheese that lay in the house that Jack built.
The tale builds from there, and pulls together many different people and events. Empathy is like that, too — except instead of a house, empathy is a bridge. The empathy bridge lets the soothing balm of love and connection flow both ways between our vulnerable hearts. As I watched the husband speak with his wife, I could see him building a bridge.
Empathetic Dialogue, With Yourself and Others
So how can you build this bridge with the people you love? Just like the nursery rhyme is not really about Jack, or the house, empathy is not about problem solving. Don’t point out the silver linings of the situation, or suggest a course of action.
When you decide practice empathy you will feel emotional pain. Why? Because you feel your partner’s distress, and your distress in reaction to theirs. You need courage to be empathetic!
But wait, why would you even choose to jump into this pain? Two reasons:
- Because you deeply care about this person who is hurting.
- Empathy will bring in the connection that leads out of this pain.
You don’t need a PhD or even a therapist to take action from a place of empathy. Your only goal is to be present and curious with your loved one. You just need to change your perspective, and to be kind and tender. Touch into yourself deeply as you sit with another person in their worries, their sadness, or their anger.
As you talk to the other person, have a dialogue with yourself.
Ask, Do I know how this feels? Yes, you do. Ask, Can I be present with this person I love, without moving away, without problem solving, without pointing to silver linings? Yes, you can! It may be hard, and it may hurt, but you aren’t in danger. Go slowly. Take your time.
Think of these phrases as bricks or beams that will help build your empathy bridge.
I don’t know what to say, but I am so glad you told me.
I can’t even imagine how hard this must be for you.
You’re not alone. I am here with you.
Make the Choice to Practice Empathy
As you listened today, did you hear yourself in the role of either the husband or the wife in this exercise? If so, I hope this podcast gives you some perspective, and some ideas on how to practice more empathy. By the end of our time together, they were holding hands and smiling. Before they left, I looked at them and thought, This is the bridge that empthy built.
For more ideas, I encourage you to watch this video, “The power of Empathy,” by Brene Brown. It illustrates the difference between sympathy and empathy, and it might just make you chuckle!
Thank you so much, as always, for joining me this week. Before we meet again, I hope you’ll make the choice to practice empathy. Be mindful in the moment. Focus with curiosity on the other person’s experience. Step into their shoes and feel their feelings.
Until next time!