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How Empathy Can Save Your Relationships
Empathy is critical to any relationship and every aspect of life. It is the essential part of human behaviour. However, studies show that empathy levels have dropped over 40% since 2000. Psychologists are even terming the issue as a ‘narcissism epidemic’ which can lead to an increased diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. This is where people are so self-involved, other people become no more than objects.
The Science Of Empathy
While studies are showing a less empathetic generation, brain scans have also revealed that there is a specific part of the brain that focuses on empathy. In fact, there is a considerable difference in brain scans between more empathetic and less empathetic people.
The part of the brain that focuses on empathy is called the right supramarginal gyrus. If this brain region is underdeveloped, then people will feel less empathy. For people who feel more empathy, activity in this brain region increases. For people who are less empathetic, the brain region sees a minimal response. Interestingly, this part of the brain also doesn’t operate well when we are forced to make quick decisions. The research found that when we need to think fast, our ability for empathy is reduced.
If we want to be more empathetic, we need to dedicate time to it.
Why Is It Important?
Empathy allows us to form meaningful connections with others and the world around us. When empathy isn’t exchanged, it can lead to the breakdown of relationships. Not just romantic relationships, but lack of empathy can dramatically disrupt the relationships we have with family, friends, strangers and at work.
Furthermore, this lack of empathy exchange can be incredibly isolating. By giving up on empathy exchange, we create a comfort zone of staying isolated, which becomes a way of life. This isolation then makes it infinitely harder to form new and meaningful relationships in the future, which can be damaging to your mental health, wellbeing and interpersonal skills.
Empathy has also shown to be an incredibly positive character trait to have. In a study covering 38 countries, managers who show more empathy are considered better performers by their staff.
Are You Empathetic?
Empathy works on a sliding scale, with some people being more empathic than others. Furthermore, empathy can be a complex trait. For example, Dr Dan Siegel, a professor of psychiatry believes there are five types of empathy. Some people will identify more with some aspects than others. However, this does not necessarily mean they are more or less empathetic than other people.
The Five Types Of Empathy
- Emotional Resonance – This is describing the ‘essence of feeling felt’ where you feel what someone else is feeling.
- Perspective Taking – Where you put yourself in someone’s shoes and see the world as they see it.
- Cognitive Empathy – Where you understand that memory and experiences are influencing the way someone thinks.
- Empathic Concern/Compassion – Where you feel someone’s pain and do something to reduce their suffering by working out what it is to make someone feel better.
- Empathic Joy – Where you become excited by someone else’s success or accomplishments.
When Empathy Doesn’t Align In A Relationship
Everyone’s approach to empathy is different. People may be good at emotional resonance but be less equipped with perspective taking. It is very common for people to become disillusioned with someone’s empathic response.
For example, I have a client whose family is overseas. Despite making an effort to reach out to them regularly and showing empathy with what is going on in their life, she feels that she gets little empathy back from them.
I find this is a widespread reason for empathic connections to become lost. For people who travel or have a great deal of distance between their family, friends or partners, they often become ‘out of sight, out of mind’. It is not that the other person has stopped caring, but rather that they require a different way to express their empathy such as seeing you in person.
How You Experience Empathy
In neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), we learn that people experience the world differently, with each person having a dominant or prevalent sense through which they experience the world. In NLP, which is a psychotherapy approach to self-development, these are called submodalities. These five senses are;
When there is a breakdown in empathy, it can often be because we become accustomed to experiencing the world in a certain modality. However, we neglect to think that the other person may be more accustomed to a different modality or sense.
For example, a lack of empathy may come across because a person isn’t experiencing you in the way they prefer. For people coping with long-distance relationships, hearing someone’s voice may not be enough for someone whose preferred sense is sight. In this case, it may be better to form empathetic connections through a video call.
For others, without being able to embrace you physically, the empathy may be less evident when you are only able to see each other.
Fortunately, there are ways that you can nurture empathy to not only restore relationships but build stronger relationships too.
How To Nurture Empathy And Save Your Relationships
By being in tune with your emotions, it is much easier to tune into the emotions of others. Think about your prevalent sense and how you like others to show their empathy. Then think of the relationships you want to foster and the preferred sense of that person.
To expand your self-awareness, I recommend practising vipassana meditation. Vipassana meditation is also known as ‘insight’ meditation that demonstrates an awareness of what is happening, as it is happening. As well as helping with self-awareness, Vipassana meditation has been proven to significantly benefit both physical and psychological well-being. In fact, just 27 minutes of meditation a day has been known to change the structure of the brain which can help to enhance focus and emotional regulation too.
2. Be a good listener
Practising active listening and looking for non-verbal clues can help to develop your empathy and allow you to forge deeper connections. Listening without judgement is important. You can show your listening skills through reflection, by clarifying what the other person says to show you understand what they are feeling.
3. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness has been proven to develop and foster empathy as well as rewiring the brain to become more empathetic. You can practice this by sitting quietly and then think and direct loving thoughts to;
- Your family and friends
- Someone whom you have a conflict or tension with
- Strangers you do not know
- Yourself through self-compassion.
What If It Doesn’t Work?
Many of my clients have the mindset of ‘if someone isn’t empathetic to me, why should I be empathic to them?’. My answer is that the fact that you have seen that there is an empathic disparity between you shows that you are more empathetically developed than them. As you have this awareness, it becomes your responsibility to make the changes you want to see. If they have no awareness, they will be unable to show you empathy in the way you are looking for.
My advice is to try. Make an effort to show empathy to a person in a way they can see and appreciate based on their preferred modality or sense. If this doesn’t work, then at least you have further enhanced your own empathy skills which will be invaluable as you go on to forge new relationships and connections with other.
Still struggling with empathy disparity?
If you are struggling with empathy in your relationships, I am here to help. Feel free to call me on 0207 971 7677 to arrange your free 15-minute consultation and find out how my blended therapy approach can help you with the problems you face.
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