Empathy: What Does it Mean and How Do I Practice it?

What does empathy mean? How do I use it? Why do I have to have boundaries to have empathy? Why do I have to change and no one else? How can empathy help me when my life is perfect? So many questions and so little time to change, right? In this blog, you will see how empathy plays an important role within your relationships and yourself.

According to Yalom (2002), “Accurate empathy is not only an essential technique for the therapist, but for patients, and we must develop empathy for others” (p. 23). It is important to understand what empathy is and why it is an essential technique for you in your life. Empathy is beneficial for being seen and fully understood.

According to Brene Brown’s book, I Thought it Was Just Me (But it Isn’t), (2008) Brown references the four attributes of empathy:

  • To be able to see the world as others see it—This requires putting your own "stuff" aside to see the situation through your loved one's eyes. (Brown, 2008. p. 13).

  • To be nonjudgmental—Judgement of another person's situation discounts the experience and is an attempt to protect ourselves from the pain of the situation. (Brown, 2008. p. 13).

  • To understand another person’s feelings—We have to be in touch with our own feelings in order to understand someone else's. Again, this requires putting your own "stuff" aside to focus on your loved one. (Brown, 2008. p. 13).

  • To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings—Rather than saying, "At least you..." or "It could be worse..." try, "I've been there, and that really hurts," or (to quote an example from Brown) "It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it.” (Brown, 2008. p. 13).

    In the passage above, Brown (2008) illustrates the importance of empathy in our daily lives. Just like we practice to become good at a sport, we have to practice to become good at empathy. Brown (2008) refers to practicing vulnerability, empathy, and boundaries as a spiritual practice. To become better at something, we need to gain an understanding about how it impacts us and the world around us.

    To practice empathy in our daily interactions and lives, it is important to practice good boundaries. Think about a time that you were tired, hungry, and maybe had a bad day at work. Does this ring a bell? If it does, think about what you are not doing in your daily life to create healthy habits and self-care routine? Often, clients will come into my office and say that they are in an unhealthy space. My first question is, “what has changed?” A lot of the time, we do not focus on what healthy habits we have changed. We tend to focus on the negative things that are going on in our lives. When we practice empathy in our lives and our relationships, it takes a lot of energy and emotional intelligence. However, to be empathetic, we must practice healthy boundaries. Healthy boundaries create healthy sustainable empathy in your life and your relationships. Isn’t is funny how it all connects? You are probably thinking, Brittany, now what? You have told me about empathy and boundaries, do you have some tools for me??? YES!

    Let me give you a simple definition of boundaries: what is ok and what is not ok in your life (Brown, 2008). Setting boundaries can be tricky and you are learning, as well as, the people around you. When you set boundaries, they will be tested and may need to be adjusted. Sometimes clients will come to me after working on how to set healthy boundaries and feel their boundaries may be too rigid. It is important to assess and re-evaluate the boundaries that you have set and become clear on what you can control and what you cannot control. A big piece of setting boundaries is control and to be able to recognize that somethings are out of your control.

    A few tools for you to implement in your daily life:

    ·       Identify who you need to work on your boundaries with. Here is a worksheet that walks you through how to evaluate your boundaries within your relationship AND create an action plan to enact within your relationship. (https://www.therapistaid.com/therapy-worksheet/boundaries-psychoeducation-printout)

    ·       Ask your friends or family (a trusted one) where they feel that you can support yourself and establish healthy boundaries in your life. It is great to gain the perspective of a trusted family member or friend who are safe and can provide supportive feedback.

  • Start with 5 minutes of mindfulness per day and increase it as you are comfortable. This will give you some “down time” to be present and allow yourself time to be present without distractions.

    A video to add to your must watch list:

    • Brene Brown Boundaries Video:

      https://www.facebook.com/theworkofthepeople/videos/10153967066765682/

It is important to understand where you are on your journey to practicing empathy and proceed with what you are comfortable with. I always recommend contacting a therapist for more tools to add to your tool box. If you are interested in learning more about how empathy and boundaries can create a positive impact in your life, please contact me at brittanypopecounseling@gmail.com or 907-204-0630. There is also a contact me button on my website, click here—>https://www.bewellmentalwellness.net/contact/.

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Reference

Brown, B. (2008). I thought it was just me (but it isn't): Telling the truth about perfectionism, inadequacy, and power. New York: Gotham Books.

Boundaries Info Sheet (Worksheet). (2016). Retrieved September 28, 2018, from https://www.therapistaid.com/therapy-worksheet/boundaries-psychoeducation-printout

Yalom, I. D. (2002). The gift of therapy: An open letter to a new generation of therapists and their patients. New York: HarperCollins.

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Be Well--