What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of empathy?
Some people associate it with pity, feeling bad for someone else. Others think of it as being in someone else’s shoes. Both can be close but there’s another element to add. Empathy is feeling with someone. It’s looking at their experience and taking the perspective of what it must be like for them, while still having your own separate experience.
In relationships, empathy is a powerhouse of creating space for repair. The lack of empathy is a place where resentment can thrive. So let’s take a look at some of the ways empathy can show up in relationships and what it can do.
Empathy as an antidote to resentment:
- When we don’t experience empathy, we often feel our experience isn’t seen or understood. So if the same hurt happens again, it can help build resentment that our partner didn’t learn our hurts last time or try to protect us from getting hurt again in the same way. The more of these moments we experience, the easier it is for resentment to build.
- Empathy is not accepting blame. You can hold ownership over your actions and express empathy for how you impacted them while meaning to do no harm. This is the hardest part for a lot of people. So many of us are taught that acknowledging someone else’s hurt, if we are part of the cause, is the same as taking blame for their hurt. When someone doesn’t intend to cause harm, they often struggle here. But empathy is different. It’s not taking blame for the other person’s hurt as if you meant to cause it. It’s acknowledging that regardless of your intentions, they have been impacted. Empathy allows us to go get curious with our partner about the impact and try to understand the experience.
Empathy as a tool for connection:
- When you can empathize with your partner’s experience, it can help build a connection between your reality and theirs.
- Each person in a relationship will have their own truth, and all of those truths are real at the same time. This is just a way of acknowledging perspectives. Expressing empathy to your partner doesn’t erase your reality or prioritize theirs. It simply identifies that it exists and is just as real to them as yours is to you.
- When both of your truths get to exist at the same time, you can look at them together and see the similarities and differences. This can help you connect more with your partner’s inner world and help them connect to you.
- When empathy allows you and your partner to see each other’s experiences as valid, it also allows differing needs to exist at the same time.
- When a partner feels like their experience is seen, it helps build confidence that the other person understands and if they had known this would be the outcome, they would have handled the situation differently. It reinforces the positive intention that we’re trying to get across in the first place.
- Feeling your partner allow space for and acknowledge your experience is a way of feeling seen. When you’re assured you are seen, anxiety and urgency can decrease and connection can increase.
Some important things to keep in mind with experiencing and expressing empathy:
- When you are trying to express a hurt to your partner, it’s possible you will also find their actions came from a place of feeling hurt too. There is space for both of your hurts to be true.
- What hurts you may not hurt them.
- What soothes you may not soothe them.
- Empathy is about learning, not solving.
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