“I can feel your pain” are the words shared with me. My immediate reaction – “no you can’t and don’t you dare tell me you can feel my pain”, “How would you know what I am feeling, you are not me, you don’t know what is going on inside of me”, “what you are feeling is your own pain”.
These statements I made, many years ago, with regards to empathizing process this person was sharing with me, were an unconscious knowing that I had at the time. I had no idea until some years later, that the words I spoke were words of truth-without knowing it.
WHAT IS EMPATHY
I have asked many people over the years “what is empathy?” The common response I get is “the ability to feel another person’s emotions”. And for a long time, I allowed this way of thinking and belief to be what I believed I was experiencing.
I remember running training programmes that were five days in duration that were live in’s. We lived at the training venue and shared the space with the participants. We were not only delivering the training with the participants we were also eating all meals and relaxation time with them. This was an intensive and extensive amount of time to spend with people who we were guiding to work through their leadership, communication and personal processing.
Upon returning home from these five-day programmes, I often found I was not only physically exhausted I was also emotionally drained. I would spend a significant period of my weekend crying. And I believed I was crying the tears of the participants from the programme, because I had spent the week empathizing with them, hearing their stories and feeling their emotions.
I believed that I was understanding what they had been through and was feeling the emotions they experienced. This fitted with the description of what others said empathy is.
How wrong I was. I discovered that this was not actually the process of empathy at all.
What I had been going through was hugely impacting on me. So what I decided to do was to explore and understand my process of empathy and this is what I discovered.
THE EMPATHY PROCESS
1. YOU EXPLORE WHAT A PERSON IS EXPERIENCING OR COULD EXPERIENCE
The process of empathizing involves a person sharing their experience and the emotions they felt in, and as a result of the experience. OR
Where you consider what could or might happen for a person i.e. what they experience and the emotions they could feel as a result of a potential experience.
2. YOU CONNECT TO THE PERSON THROUGH THE EMOTION
In empathizing with the person, what you are understanding is the emotions the person could or did feel and experience in the situation.
You may not understand the situational experience they have had. However what you can relate to is the emotions that surfaced within them that they felt as a result of the situation. Emotions such as rejection, guilt, hurt, shame, anger and more.
This is where your connection is with the person. The emotions.
3. YOU UNDERSTAND THE EMOTIONS NOT THE EXPERIENCE
You understand what the emotions are that the person is feeling. You know what they feel like and the experience of them. The focus is on knowing the experience and reasoning for the emotions, rather than knowing the actual situational experience.
If you have not had the experience they have or could have, then you put yourself in their shoes to consider the impact that the experience would have on you emotionally.
If you have had a similar experience then you remember or access the emotions that you have experienced and this is what enables you to understand what the person is feeling.
4. YOU WILL NOT HAVE HAD THE SAME EXPERIENCE
No two people can have the same exact experience, as your pasts, beliefs and interpretation of behaviors and situations, result in both of you having different experiences. This is why you cannot know exactly what the person went through.
Be aware of saying these words – “I understand what you have gone through”.
I worked with a young lady who had been beaten severely by her partner. One of the people she had seen for help, expressed exactly these words. The emotional reaction it triggered in this young woman was one where she was close to wanting to kill the person.
The young lady asked the person helping her (in words a bit more severe than the ones I am about to use) “how would you know what I experienced – have you ever physically beaten by someone who supposedly loves you?”. To which the person helping her said “no”. All credibility and trust were lost in the relationship.
Even someone who has experienced domestic emotional abuse is not able to truthfully say they know what a person has gone through that has been physically abused. They are two different experiences. Saying “I know what it is like to be emotionally abused and the emotions attached to that, however, I cannot imagine what it is like to be physically abused”. This is the truth of your processing.
Do not try to claim you know an experience you have not had, or even that your experience is the same. Even though it may be similar but not the same. You can know the emotional processing that occurs as a result of similar experiences.
5. YOU FEEL THE EMOTIONS
In hearing or exploring the experience the person has had or could have, you feel emotions.
You are feeling your emotions
You may believe that you are feeling the person’s emotions, this is possible to a point (and I will explain that in the next section). The emotions you are mainly, if not only feeling, are your own.
The story and the sharing of the other persons emotions, triggers the unhealed emotions you have stored within you. The emotions stem from a similar or possibly even very different experience to the person you are empathizing with.
You can relate to, understand and feel what the emotion is like, that the person is feeling – because you have experienced these emotions before and they are unhealed.
Feeling the other person’s emotions
The emotions you are feeling, there will always be a portion of them that are yours, otherwise, you would not be feeling them.
Where you are feeling some of what the other person is feeling, this occurs as a result of your emotional neediness. There is an emotional attachment to what the person is experiencing and sharing. Potentially your emotional need could be to be of value, through wanting to rescue, save, fix, understand and even solve what the person is feeling emotionally.
Essentially you are saving the person from feeling what you are feeling – or rather you are saving yourself from the feelings, or so we subconsciously believe.
Your sensory process is sensing what the other person is emotionally feeling and it is being driven by your emotional neediness.
How this works is your area of sensing opens up, reaches out in energy and grabs hold of some the energy attached to the person’s emotions. You then bring this energy back inside of yourself, with the subconscious intention that you feel the emotions rather than the other person feeling them.
So you start feeling, processing and expressing both yours and some of the other persons emotions.
This pattern of processing will have been established at a young age, where you will have rescued, saved or been responsible for others emotional well being and issues.
Your value to them, came from saving them from their emotions.
6. YOU ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR THE OTHERS PERSONS EMOTIONS
You cannot heal the other person. It is not your responsibility to work through their processing, to save them or to fix them. In fact, you are not responsible for even carrying and feeling their emotions.
You dis-empower the person. Their ability to work through what they are feeling is diluted and diminished by the fact that you are holding emotion for them. And who gave you permission to do this anyway.
You can walk beside the person to support them to work through their emotions – this is the key approach.
Be aware of not carrying or feeling their emotions.
In sensing what they are feeling, when your sensory process reaches out to sense what the person is feeling, leave the energy attached to their emotions with the person. Then come back to yourself to know what you felt, from recognizing it rather than carrying it.
7. YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR EMOTIONS
The emotions that yours, that you are feeling, are the ones you are responsible for. And these are emotions you have suppressed in you attached to a past situation. Your responsibility is to work with identifying the situation and healing the emotion you experience.
8. HAVING HEALED YOUR EMOTIONS, THE EMPATHY PROCESS CHANGES
A situation occurred many years ago where I was working with a lady and the woman who was my support facilitator, was observing. The support facilitator said to me – your empathizing has changed, you are doing something different.
I loved that she noticed this, as it assisted me to become aware of how my processing was different.
With years of working with healing my emotions, I found that while I was listening to the lady I was working with I identified that I was not feeling any emotion, rather I was recalling and remembering what the emotion looked and sounded like, as my way of empathizing.
The healing of my emotions, had left me with just a picture, rather than any feeling.
I also noticed that I was no longer feeling others emotions, as I had worked on my over responsibility and emotional need to rescue and save others.
I just knew what the emotion was attached to the persons experience and understood what the feeling and processing was, attached to the persons emotions.
This is when your ability to empathize becomes a place of powerful neutrality, acceptance and clarity in processing. You are a healed, not attached, clear and objective empathizer.