As my peer world expands to include more and more counsellors, therapists, Pastor’s, teachers, and others in the helping profession, I think this topic is really relevant. Add to that those hundreds and thousands of people who are compassionate and empathetic, and there are a lot of us who have empathy, not only as a core value, but actually part of who we are.
Of course empathy and compassion are similar, but empathy goes deeper. Empathy is where you
really put yourself in that person shoes, at least in terms of how they feel. Of course we can’t put ourselves in someone else’s shoes in terms of how they got there, their particular circumstances, because we’re all so unique. We’ve all experienced
anger, we’ve all experienced pain, we’ve all experience happiness and joy. But how we experience those emotions, the intensity of the emotion, and what leads to those will be different for each person. Example you’re sitting in an airplane beside someone who is terrified of flying. Empathy doesn’t mean you have to be terrified of flying rather empathy gives you that awareness of what that person is going through emotionally and how hard it must be for that person sitting beside you.
When talking about empathy, it occurred to me maybe we should talk about what it is not. As just mentioned, empathy is not feeling exactly the same way about
certain circumstance as another person would feel. And empathy is also not taking on responsibility for the other person’s choices. I think
this one really hit home for me as I was watching people struggling with weight loss. In a particular episode, I watched how hard the doctor tried to explain what was going on and the person was in complete denial about the circumstances. This person kept saying, “only I know it’s right for me,” “the scale had to be wrong”, “I can figure out how many calories are in something and I’m not eating that much.” This person just completely denied reality. I thought to myself, wow how would I help that person if they came to me as a therapist? And I realized I couldn’t. As much is I could empathize with this person’s pain (aches and pains are an ongoing battle for me too) and struggles (I’ve been wanting to loose weight for 2 years but I don’t really try to lose the weight – desire doesn’t equal trying, but that’s another blog), empathy doesn’t give me the ability to change someone.
Empathy also doesn’t make me responsible for someone else or to force a person to change. Empathy opens up our heart to someone and then we have to move on from that at some point. Each individual person, as much as we influence each other, still has to make their own choices. No a matter how hard the circumstances, or what else is going on around us, we are still alone responsible to choose the path before us.
This means those of us with empathy really have to embrace the concept sitting with open hands. This concept by Dr. David Burns, is basically it’s offering someone a resource (friendship, tools, advice, help….. whatever.) and then you completely, 100%, accept their choice to take it or not. I think this is super hard for those of us with a lot of empathy because we know their life could be so much better. It’s so hard, we can just feel it. We can feel where they’re at right now, we can feel where they could be at, and we just want it so bad for them.
Here’s the thing, your desire for them cannot turn into any kind of responsibility because it always comes down to free will and their choice. This is so important for those who are dealing with friends, clients, and family that are struggling. It is NOT your responsibility to make anyone change. Not even your spouse or kids or clients. Yes, you are responsible as far as you are able to influence, guide, and encourage, but it stops there. You can’t choose for them, therefore you are not responsible for their choice.
So next time you feel yourself so drained and arguing with someone, maybe pause and ask yourself: Is my empathy causing conflict because I feel responsible
for this person and I wanna force them to make the better choice?