AWAKENING TO RELATIONSHIPS: EMPATHY, Part 1

“No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Theodore Roosevelt

Intimate relationship

Intimate relationship (Photo credit: Masashi Mochida)

How do you feel when you are able to empathize with one you love?  Does having someone empathize with you draw you closer?  How important is empathy in your life?  Is it a part of love?

It’s spring again and the days grow longer and the light becomes more intense.  On winter’s cold days, I enjoyed curling up under a blanket to read, writing in my journal, or watching a few televisions programs.  But with the Spring Equinox, something shifts, and although March can’t decide whether it’s winter or spring, a few flowers are beginning to blossom.

The light pulls at me and I want to be outside.  Something opens in me—my heart feels exposed and touched by the blossoms and the song of new birds returning to the area.  I want to be the light spreading through the forest.

Edith Wharton said, “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or to be the mirror that reflects it.”  One way I can spread light is through my words, and today the word that compels me to speak is empathy because I’ve decided to write a series of blogs on relationships and feel it is the most essential quality in a loving or caring relationship.

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Empathy In Healthy Relationships

We have many kinds of relationships with friends, family, lovers, or co-workers, and the quality of those relationships involves several aspects: empathy, intimacy, integrity, and commitment.  In healthy relationships, all these aspects function in a positive way.  They create a meaningful connection, but the lack of empathy always creates separation.  When a therapist friend of mine stated that the main reason for divorce in this country is lack of empathy, I wasn’t surprised.

Empathy is the deep emotional understanding of another’s feelings or problems.  We may feel what the other person is feeling because we’ve had a similar experience or we may be emotionally sensitive enough that we can imagine how they feel.  It is a deeper understanding than sympathy which is merely an intellectual understanding of what the other person feels.

Parents Must Teach Children Empathy

In any kind of relationship, empathy makes it possible for two people to bond in a caring way.  Empathy comes from a loving and spiritual place within us, and it is a skill we hopefully learn as children from our parents’ behavior.  Parents must teach children to identify what they feel and encourage them to talk about what bothers them and makes them happy or angry.  Otherwise, they may withdraw or develop dysfunctional ways, such as bullying, to express their frustration.

I have had the experience of talking with an adult, expressing my anger about a situation, and had them pull away.  One friend even asked me why I was angry at her when I was talking about a situation that had nothing to do with her and where she wasn’t even present.  I came to understand that when people, like my friend, have been reared to believe it isn’t acceptable to feel negative emotion or to express it, they withdraw when those feelings are expressed by others.  They may have the ability to empathize only when acceptable emotions are expressed.

Lack Of Empathy May Damage Relationships

This withdrawal can be damaging to a love relationship.  I had a similar experience with a man who was unable to see how some of his behaviors were hurtful to me and this caused on-going conflict.  He had learned in childhood that the way to be safe when there was conflict was not to express feelings and to physically withdraw.  This behavior may have protected him as a child, but as an adult, his inability to empathize with my feelings prevented us from having a deeper emotional connection.

Empathy Is Essential To Community

I am fortunate to live in a beautiful mountain community where spiritual awareness is at a high level.  Still, I meet people who are so stuck on being right that their narrow-mindedness separates them from the group or community. They don’t see how disrespectful they are.  The problem isn’t that their thoughts or beliefs are too different from the groups’ ideas, but that they have to prove theirs is the only right idea. They create separation rather than connection. They clearly lack empathy.

Adults Can Learn To Be Empathetic

Expressing empathy says, “I care,” and we all want to know someone cares.  It is deeply hurtful when those we love are not empathetic.  Even when we reach adulthood without this vital skill, it is still possible to learn how to empathize through therapy or just retraining ourselves, not only to listen to others, but to listen to ourselves.  We can go inside and learn to identify what we are really feeling and set our intention to become more aware.  Peter Gerlach says that emotions point to a need that needs filling.  If we don’t know what we’re feeling, we can’t fill our own needs, much less someone else’s.

I think Roosevelt was right, “No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”  Take the time to listen and be empathetic.  This is one of the deepest and most loving ways we may connect with other people, letting them know we understand their pain and frustration.  When we can risk sharing more intimate thoughts and feelings, we may come to know and love each other in profound ways.  Expressing empathy in a relationship may transform it.  We are all One after all.

© 2013 Georganne Spruce                                                           ZQT4PQ5ZN7F5

Related Articles:  Empathy in Leadership: Ten Reasons Why It Matters, Living in Patience with Your Emotional Pain Body – Eckhart Tolle, 5 Barriers to Empathy in Marriage (and How to Overcome Them)

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