The Power of Empathy (and One Surefire Way to Know If You’re Missing It)

Our brains are wired to get away from pain. One of the ways we do that in a relationship is try to lighten the moment. But should we?

If someone shares something with you that is incredibly painful and you try to lighten the moment, that may be a lack of empathy. Empathy is about understanding where someone is coming from and caring about them, it says nothing about trying to make someone feel better. The following is a good descriptive cartoon that illuminates the difference between sympathy and empathy from a talk with Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly.

Are there places in your life where someone’s discomfort leaves you feeling uncertain of what to say? Or maybe their pain is simply making you uncomfortable?

Our brains are wired to get away from pain and one way we do that in a relationship is try to lighten the moment.

One person says, “My son is failing in school.” They have clear pain, your mirror neurons pick this up and so you feel pain. Your brain jumps into action and says, “If you take her pain away then you’ll feel better.” So you say, “At least your daughter is doing well.”

This completely misses the mark as you might have seen in the video.

The person is in pain, they just need someone to acknowledge that and care about them. After that you might say, “Is there any way I can support you with this?”

How we deal with our own pain and how we deal with relational pain are very similar. What we need is to feel cared about and understood and so do other people when they’re in pain. Ultimately, this gives us a sense of feeling accepted, a sense of belonging.

Security is the kindling for feeling content, calm and happy.

Adapted from Mindfulness & Psychotherapy