There is so much talk in the medical community lately on empathy. My first reaction is to wonder if it’s doing any good- can it be taught? Are we wasting our time? But the more I dig into the psychology of empathy, the more I appreciate understanding its nuances and what drives our ability to be able to connect with others in ways that help alleviate their suffering.
In this adorable little video, Brene Brown illustrates the difference between empathy and sympathy. I love how it shows that instead of being closely related, empathy and sympathy are actually opposites: empathy’s foundation is connection, whereas sympathy’s foundation is disconnection.
The video beautifully illustrates that when you empathize with someone, you are making the choice to get in touch with the same emotions the person who is hurting feels. Sympathy, on the other hand, wants distance: “Man, that sucks for you.”
In the video, there are four essential components to empathy:
- Perspective taking: the ability to take on the perspective of another
- Staying out of judgement which is “not easy when you enjoy it as much as most of us do.”
- Recognizing emotion in other people
- Being able to communicate back that emotion: “Empathy…is feeling with people.”
“Empathy is a choice and it’s a vulnerable choice. Because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.”
-Brene Brown on Empathy
Empathy is our willingness to be brave enough to connect with the same feelings another is feeling. It’s our willingness to recognize those feelings in ourselves: either from past experiences, or by allowing ourselves to feel what it would feel like to be in their circumstance. It’s a choice to put ourselves in the way of pain and suffering for the good of another. But the beauty in it all is that pain and suffering is not the end result: healing is. By being empathetic and connecting, healing begins, and both people experience it.
Whenever I have the opportunity to talk with caregivers about what makes a great day for them, connection with their patients comes up. Not only does connection drastically alter the experience of the patient, it also changes the experience of the caregiver. Both benefit. It’s a beautiful thing!