“I can feel your pain” are the words I hear spoken to me. My immediate reactionary thought – “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 thoughts I had, many years ago, about how the person who spoke the words “I can feel your pain” believed she was empathizing with me, were spot on, just I did not realize this until some years later.
My thoughts reflected the truth of how we empathize.
SO WHAT IS EMPATHY
The general belief about empathy is – it is an individual’s ability to feel another person’s emotions. And for a long time, I also believed that this was what I was doing until I started exploring the process.
I was delivering a number of five-day live-in training programmes. These involved staying at the training venue and sharing the space with the participants. We were not only delivering the training with the participants we were also eating all our meals and spending most of our relaxation time around them.
This was an intensive and extensive amount of time to spend with people who we were guiding and working through their leadership ability, communication skills 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 the tears I was crying were the tears of the participants from the programme. I had spent the week empathizing with them, hearing their stories and feeling their emotions, so they must be theirs. What other reason did I have to cry? Yes well, I soon found out.
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 empathy is believed to be.
How wrong I was. I discovered that this was not what I was doing and not the complete process of what empathy is.
As this emotional process was hugely impacting on me mentally, emotionally and physically, I decided to explore and understand what the empathy process was and this is what I discovered.
THE EMPATHY PROCESS
1. YOU CONNECT TO THE PERSON’S EXPERIENCE
The first key element of the empathy process involves your willingness and receptiveness to spend time, exploring an experience a person or group of people could potentially have, have had or are having. And in doing so you will empathize in one of three ways. You will either proactively empathize, responsively empathize or reactively empathize.
I will explain the differences in the experience of these three different processes.
Proactive empathizing: This is where the person or people you are empathizing with, have not yet had the experience you are exploring. You proactively take time to consider what could or might happen for the person or people i.e. what they would or could experience and the emotions they might feel as a result of the potential experience. You put yourself in their shoes and make assumptions, and these assumptions are based on your previous experiences, your connection to the potential situation and your understanding of the person or people.
Responsive empathizing: In this process, the person or people share the experience they have had or are having, and you explore with them the experience and the emotions they did experience or are experiencing. In this situation, you do not identify with the experience, you have no emotional connection to it. The emotions you explore with them, are ones you know but are not ones being triggered within you at the time. So you do not feel any emotion.
You are responsive because you understand what the emotion is like, but have no emotional attachment in the empathizing process.
Reactive empathizing: The same scenario as responsive empathizing except for the following factors. You identify with the experience i.e. you have had a similar one, so your processing is influenced by this and the emotions you experienced from this past situation, are triggered in you. Or you have not had the experience however, you identify with and know the emotions the person felt or is feeling, and these emotions are triggered in you and you have an emotional reaction.
You are reactive because you have an emotional attachment in the empathizing process.
2. YOU CONNECT TO THE EMOTION
The second key element of the empathizing process is that, what it is you are specifically connecting to with the person you are empathizing with, is the emotion.
You are understanding and connecting to the emotions the person could feel, did feel or is experiencing in the situation.
You may not understand the situational experience they have had or are experiencing. However, you can relate to the emotions that have surfaced within them as a result of the situation. Emotions such as rejection, guilt, hurt, shame, anger and many others.
Your connection with the person is an emotional one.
You understand what the emotions are, that the person is feeling. You know what they feel like, the processing and experience of them and the reasoning for feeling the emotions, rather than knowing the situational experience.
If you have not had the experience they have had, are having 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 and access the emotions that you went through and this is what enables you to understand what the person is feeling.
3. YOU WILL NOT HAVE HAD THE SAME EXPERIENCE
No two people can have the same exact experience because your pasts, emotional connection, beliefs and interpretation of behaviors and situations are different, so this is why you have different experiences.
The third element I gained clarity around in the empathizing process is that you cannot know exactly what the person went through and experienced. Claiming you do, can have an adverse result on the person you are empathizing with.
Be aware of saying these words – “I understand what you have gone through” or “I know what you are going 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 these exact words. The emotional reaction it triggered in this young woman was such that she wanted to kill the person. She had enormous amounts of hurt and anger triggered by these words.
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 been physically beaten by someone who supposedly loves you?” To which the person helping her said “no”. It was too late now, it was emotionally not safe and secure for this lady any more. All credibility of the person helping her was out the window and the trust was lost in the relationship.
Even someone who has experienced domestic emotional abuse (as opposed to physical 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 and more likely to maintain the connection with the person.
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.
4. WHY YOU EMPATHIZE WITH THE PERSON
The reason why you empathize with a person or group of people, influences the process of how you empathize, your experience of it and the impacts of the empathy process on you.
There are two main reasons why we empathize with another or others, either it is a perceived responsibility or a real responsibility. There are also further other distinctions in each of these types of responsibilities which I will clarify.
You have a perceived responsibility to explore the person or peoples experience with them. Through the use of the term perceived it is not a real responsibility, rather one you have either had imposed on you or you imposed on yourself.
Imposed Responsibility – If another person or group of people impose responsibility on you, for you to empathize with them, then this will have been driven out of their emotional neediness to be reassured and be made to feel safe and secure by you. You are put in the position of parenting them as adults. You are made responsible for their emotional well being and vulnerability.
Others are imposing their expectations of you, on you.
The only way you could be fulfilling this responsibility is if you took on board the imposed responsibility. This is due to your desire to rescue, fix and save the people from the potential learning’s they are to face, the experiences they are having or could have and most importantly the emotions they are feeling or could feel. You don’t want them to hurt like you are hurting or have hurt. And if you do not fulfil this responsibility you feel guilty.
Self-imposed Responsibility – This process and the reasoning for it is exactly the same as the imposed responsibility except for one thing. The people in the situation did not make you responsible for their emotional well being, you gave yourself that responsibility.
The expectation you believe you have to fulfil has been self-imposed.
This has come about through conditioning from your upbringing. You will have taken on board adult-type behaviors and responsibilities at a young age. This is where you were responsible or believed you were responsible for other people, how they felt, what was happening for them, looking out for them and parenting them. This set up a pattern of over responsibility, where you were conditioned to step in and make things right for others, carry their pain and work things out for them.
For you to empathize out of a perceived responsibility that is actually not yours, means you have an emotional attachment to the person or the people. You may have an emotional attachment to the experience and situation. Or you may even believe you have a moral obligation to empathize with the person because it is your duty. The question I have is “says who?”
Acting on these responsibilities without awareness of the process will result in you carrying the other person’s emotions, as well as your own. This was evidenced in the example of mine I shared about the five-day live-in training programmes. You will carry the emotion, worry and a burden that is not yours to carry.
The key here is to walk beside the person or people to support them to carry and sort out their own emotions and situation.
This is where you made a choice to take responsibility for the care of a person or people, as a parent, partner, employer, facilitator, teacher, trainer or leader (to name a few roles) In this situation your responsibility to empathize is a real and practical one.
Even in this scenario, you still may experience the process of an imposed expectation to empathize, whether by others or yourself. The key difference in the experience you have in your empathizing process is the level of emotional attachment to the person, situation, experience and emotions.
Whether it is your responsibility to empathize or not is another element that impacts the dynamic of empathizing.
5. YOU FEEL EMOTIONS
In hearing or exploring the experience the person or people have had, are having or could have, you feel emotions. This is the fifth element of the empathy process and there are different peoples emotions you are feeling.
A. You are feeling your emotions
You may believe that you are feeling the other person’s or the group’s emotions and this is possible to a point. This is influenced by your levels of over responsibility and emotional neediness.
The emotions you are mainly, if not only feeling, are your own.
The story and the sharing of the other person’s experience and emotions in words, energy and behavioral expression, 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 or people are feeling – because you have experienced these emotions before. They are unhealed emotions within you because if they were healed you would not feel them.
B. Feeling the other person’s emotions
A percentage of the emotions you feel when you empathize will always be yours, otherwise, you would not feel any emotion.
There can also be a percentage of the emotions that belong to the other person or people. You will experience their emotions as a result of your over-responsibility and emotional neediness. There is an emotional attachment to either the person (or people) and/or to what the person is experiencing and sharing. Your emotional need to be of value is expressed through your want to take responsibility for rescuing, saving, fixing, understanding and even solving what the person or people are emotionally feeling.
Essentially you are saving the person from feeling what they are feeling, which is saving yourself from what is being triggered in you through the empathizing process.
Why and How You Feel Others Emotions
What happens when you feel others emotions, is that 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 is scanning constantly for what is going on around you. When you are empathizing with a person or people, this area of sensing energy opens up, reaches out to the emotional energy of the other person or people to connect with it so it can recognize it. In this scenario, it grabs hold of some the energy attached to the person’s emotions. The reason it grabs hold of it is to rescue the person from it, so they do not feel it. You then bring this emotional 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 person’s emotions.
This pattern of processing will have been established at a young age, as described in the over responsibility section of this blog.
Your value to the person or people comes from saving them from their emotions. However, this does not truly work, as you only keep the person from experiencing the emotions that are already within them, and they will surface again at some other time. The process diminishes your value to yourself, as you become emotional, fragmented energy-wise and drained. You are also trying to deal with someone else’s emotions, which are not your responsibility.
6. YOU ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR OTHERS EMOTIONS
The sixth element of empathizing is that you cannot heal the other person or people. 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 their 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 emotionally feeling, do just that – only feel it. Do not pick it up and carry it. Leave the energy attached to the emotions with the person. Then come back to yourself to identify and know what you felt, from recognizing it rather than carrying it.
7. YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR EMOTIONS
The emotions that are yours, that you are feeling, are the ones you are responsible for. This is the seventh element of empathizing.
As I have already mentioned, these are emotions you have suppressed in you, attached to a past situation or situations. Your responsibility is to work with identifying the situation and healing the emotion you experience when you empathize.
This is why the emotion is surfacing in you from the empathizing process. It is signalling to you, there is a part of you that needs your empathy with yourself, where you heal this emotional processing.
8. HAVING HEALED YOUR EMOTIONS, THE EMPATHY PROCESS CHANGES
The more you heal your emotions, the more your empathy process changes. The following example clarifies this last element of the empathy process.
A situation occurred many years ago where I was working with a lady exploring her processing. The woman who was my support facilitator, at the time, was observing this interaction.
My fellow 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 empathizing processing dynamic had changed.
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. Instead, I was recalling and remembering what the emotion looked like and sounded like. This was my new way of empathizing. I was not experiencing the emotion anymore.
The healing of my emotions had left me with just a picture and words, 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, that was attached to the person’s experience and understood what the feeling and processing were, attached to the person’s emotions.
This is when your ability to empathize becomes a place of powerful neutrality, acceptance and clarity in processing.
This is when you become a healed, not emotionally attached, clear and objective empathizer.