Empathy is the ability to share and understand the feelings of another person. It’s a concept that is rarely discussed and practised even less. There is a big difference between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy is simply feeling sorry for another person’s hardships, while empathy is putting yourself in their shoes.
When it comes to stress, empathy is a double edged sword. It can greatly help make the world a better place, through understanding and love. But it can make you feel worse and increase your individual stress.
Let’s take these two examples.
Imagine you are walking down the street and you meet someone that starts to make fun of you, or verbally attacks you as a person. “You are fat!”, “You disgust me” etc. What do you do? The normal response to this is to fight back, shout, get angry. “Oh yeah! Well your mom dropped you on your face as a child”. This has started a war. (Believe me countries have fought over much less).
If empathy is injected into the situation, you would realise that the outburst is less of a reflection of you and more of a reflection of that person. That person must be having a bad day. Must have gone through trauma as a child. With empathy, we start trying to understand the person, instead of being reactive!
You can make this example more personal, imagine you come home from work and the first thing your partner does is shout at you about something small. “You left the laundry wet again!” What do you do? Shout back? Throw something?
Or wear your empathy glasses and try to understand what sort of a day your partner had, or something they are going through.
Empathy can help you become less about ME ME ME! It can help you solve problems before they arise.
Imagine what a world we would have if fights were diffused before they started, just because of empathy.
The negative side to empathy is that empaths often lose themselves in other people’s problems. They pick up the person’s emotions and get stressed by them. They visualise all problems as their own. It’s a horrible place to be for an empath.
Imagine you are a natural empath and have a friend crying on your shoulder about being fired from work, while her boyfriend has just broken up with her. It’s a horrible place to be, as you feel just as sad and depressed as her! This increases your daily stress, unnecessarily. Empaths have it hard.
The trick here is to distance yourself from situations that can lead to such empathetic stress.
I like using the analogy of “Empathy Glasses”, you wear them when you need to read a situation from an empathy point of view (like in the example of an imminent fight). Then you can take them off when a stressful situation is presented to you. Your friend at that moment needs you to listen and be there for her, she does not need for you to feel the same way and get stressed yourself.
Wearing these glasses takes practice. Start by observing people and trying to understand what they must be feeling and going through in the moment. The beauty about empathy is that it converts into compassion. Compassion is a whole topic in itself and as the Buddhist monks believe, ultimately leads to happiness.