The art of empathy - the gift of healing
I believe the art of empathy is the art of understanding; it is the art of being fully present with another person’s pain, sitting in their sadness, and aligning with their experience as they experience it.
Research shows that practising mindfulness about your surroundings and the people around you makes you more likely to extend empathy towards a person, developing the ability to offer help when someone needs it. Empathy is the ability to withhold judgment, withhold solutions, and to simply listen. It is the ability to facilitate space for problems rather than rush to fix with solutions, the mastery of focusing on caring for another in their time of suffering, rather than looking to cure.
I feel it is a common misunderstanding that sympathy and empathy come hand in hand, but I believe them to be two very different offerings. Let me explain.
What’s the difference between empathy and sympathy?
Put simply, sympathy is expressed. It is expressed in our words and actions e.g., “I am so sorry for your suffering, is there anything I can do?” You are understanding their problem and accepting that it is an issue for them. You are willing to help make sense of the problem, perhaps providing words of comfort, a different perspective or offerings of practical help. You stand outside of the issue.
Empathy, on the other hand, is felt. It is expressed in our emotions and our body language. It is the capability to experience the person’s pain with them and the ability to allow expression to explore those feelings, e.g. "How did you experience that? It sounds tough". It is being fully present - human to human sitting together through their suffering, holding space for their experiences, with no judgement, no offering of another perspective. It is the ability to understand exactly how that person is feeling at that time, without prejudice. You stand inside that moment with them.
Empathy is, at its simplest, the awareness of the feelings and emotions of other people - the capability to fully connect with another human, to attune to their feelings, to experience their experience alongside them and see it exactly through their lens.
As a therapist, I have held space for many clients through their suffering. This to me is the deepest privilege to share that experience with another and be trusted to do so. I have learned over the years of my therapeutic work that, in times of suffering, people do not want to hear how to 'fix' it. They do not want to hear solutions or suggestions, or words of comfort such as “at least”. What they need is for their feelings to be held and to be heard.
Of course, words of wisdom and phrases of comfort have their place, however, when someone is deep in their pain, look to offer compassion rather than comfort, and show empathy rather than sympathy.
I believe that holding space for someone in their time of need, offering only compassion and empathy, is the true gift of healing.
“Empathy is the most precious human quality.”
- Dalai Lama