In last week’s blog, I spoke about the tool of validation as being an important one to help your partner feel understood. Validation will help your mate feel like he or she is being heard and will increase emotional connection in your relationship. I explained that it’s not necessary for you to actually experience the situation or circumstances the same way your mate does in order to validate how he or she feels. By being able to use this tool, it lets your mate feel he or she matters.
Today, I want to go further and talk about how to increase empathy. First understand that empathy is not the same as sympathy. When you feel sympathetic, you’re merely feeling sorry for someone. However, when you’re empathetic, it’s like you’ve stepped into the other person’s shoes and you’re able to understand how they’re feeling.
I read an article recently where the author said that he believed that some people suffer from Empathy Deficit Disorder. He maintains that these people are self-absorbed and are unable to tune into what others experience because they’ve been too focused on earning power, status, or money rather than being concerned with forming healthy relationships.
Though I certainly agree that this focus could cause a lack of empathy, I’d suggest that it might also be brought on by some children learning to cut off their emotions early in life. When a child feels unattended to, like they don’t matter, it’s quite painful. As a result, these children survive by shutting down their emotions. As adults they become intellectualizers — sort of cut off at the head.
The good news is that it’s been discovered there’s something called neuroplasticity which means that even as adults our brains continue to grow and make new connections. It’s also been found that within our brains are mirror neurons. These are neurons that become active merely be watching others; they literally mirror the other person. They will “fire” and react when you’re seeing someone in distress, when you see another taking some action, and even when you witness the other person being altruistic.
Of course, the question becomes how do you make this happen in your life? Well, as I often say, you can’t change something unless you’re aware of it. For some of you this will mean taking a long, hard, honest look at yourself. Do you find that you often don’t get how others are reacting? Do you realize that you’re just very much into your own thing?
Some of you may have help from those around you. It probably doesn’t feel like help though because this supposed help comes as your mate complaining that you never seem to care or that nothing he or she says seems to matter. Perhaps, it’s time to take the comments seriously.
I have a client who did shut down in childhood. She’s very aware that in many cases she just doesn’t know what to do. So what she does is watch others closely to see what they do. Then she adjusts her behavior accordingly and makes a mental note for the next time. Good for her!
If you realize that you’re strength isn’t empathy, you can make a change. Start to focus on how others are acting, responding both in words and gestures. When you do, your mirror neurons will start to react and learn. Know that it will take a little while but know that it can be done!
Additionally, be assured that learning to express more empathy will make a big difference in your relationship because empathy will increase emotional connection in your relationship.