Individuals come to psychotherapy for a variety of reasons: anxiety, depression, addiction, relationship conflicts, etc. But one of the chief motivations associated with the desire to seek support is a longing to be seen, heard, understood, validated, and responded to.
What eminent psychologist, Diana Fosha, refers to as ‘Undoing Aloneness’, or what the average person would refer to as empathy. Many would describe themselves as an empathetic person, but few have actually mastered this emotional, and I highlight the word emotional, skill.
It is not a cognitive understanding. Nor is it having sympathy or compassion for someone, although this will make one more motivated to have empathy. In fact, I could dislike you but be able to set my personal feelings and views aside and exercise a great deal of empathy.
As I mentioned earlier, it is not an intellectual comprehension of what a person is going through. It is an emotional understanding at the level of a felt sense in the body. Each of us has the capacity for empathy but it is a skill that one must master to become proficient at it. Moreover, we need to have received empathy and been able to internalize it to truly acquire the ability to give it.
Every individual has the capacity to provide empathy to another. It is not a gift but a skill, although some are more naturally fluid at it than others based on a blend of nature and nurture. It is also helpful to clarify the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is feeling compassionately towards someone. Empathy is actually feeling what they are feeling.
We each have what are referred to as ‘mirror’ neurons. These neurons and related networks are what allow us to learn by observation. In the 1980’s, a group of Italian neurophysiologists were undertaking research on macaque monkeys and discovered that the same neurons would activate whether the monkey would pick up an object or observe someone picking up an object.
Since that time, this work has been validated in humans and expanded upon. In relation to empathy, when we attempt to connect emotionally and understand another our mirror neurons will activate in response to the other person’s nonverbal expressions. When I am working with clients, as I help them become more connected to themselves and their body, I will begin to feel a level of what they are feeling in their body.
This is what is referred to as limbic resonance, or in laymen’s terms ‘feeling felt’. Think of this in the context of relationships. Your partner or family member can tell you exactly what you’re asking for, but it does no good or frustrates you even further. The reason is because you don’t FEEL it. When someone who I know cares about me is attempting to give supportive feedback isn’t feeling me, I feel more alone or agitated with every word they say.
I have never given that example to anyone without them immediately validating what I was referring to. Another example comes from a former client of mine. They had suffered a tremendous loss in between our sessions. They shared with me how numerous individuals who cared about them were trying to provide supportive comments.
As my clients friends and family were giving sympathetic feedback, they said they were screaming inside, “Shut the hell up!” They stated the best thing someone did for them was when their roommate came in their room, didn’t say a word, and just sat on the bed and watched a movie with them. The reason this was healing was my client felt emotionally resonated with – feeling felt.
When we ‘feel felt’ is when we feel the least alone and most understood as a human being. When you tell someone I KNOW, it is an indicator you don’t. You don’t KNOW until you feel it. Emotions give the full context. You may tell me you feel sad, and I understand it conceptually. However, I don’t know the degree of your sadness until I feel it. A 2 on a scale of 10 and an 8 on a scale of 10 are two completely different things.
Furthermore, I need to have the context of why your sadness is an 8 of 10, what I refer to as an ‘epiphany moment’. Many people invalidate their own emotional experience due to believing it is excessive to the situation. Your emotion is always valid. It is coming from somewhere. If you dismiss or criticize yourself, you will not be able to identify the source of your emotion.
Perhaps, you’ve had a recent loss that was not all that significant, yet you are experiencing intense grief. It may be caused by unprocessed grief from your past being triggered by your current loss. It is also important to have self-empathy. As human beings, we have a multitude of parts to our personality structure.
Many times we have a younger part of us that still carries a wound or burden from our past. It may become activated by present circumstances. All too often people attempt to push this feeling away not realizing it is a part of us reaching out for support and care. The next time this occurs in your life, attempt to allow the feeling, locate where you feel it in your body, and stay open and curious in regards to what comes into your conscious awareness. This is a way to ‘undo aloneness’ internally.
Lastly, you don’t need to be a professional therapist or in the helping field to provide empathy to others. In fact, sometimes all this knowledge gets in the way by keeping therapists too in their head. The key is to be present, have no agenda, do your best to set your prejudices and judgments to the side, and stay curious until you can achieve the felt sense in your body of what they other person is feeling.
After you have attained the goal of truly feeling the other person (empathy), they will be much more receptive to the common sense advice or encouragement they may need. Moreover, you will now have earned the right to give it by taking the time to really understand them. Ironically, in many cases, this is actually the thing they need to resolve what they are struggling with emotionally. Empathy can be an end in itself. Undoing aloneness is powerful. It is a gift we can each give each other.
A final word on empathy. Many caring individuals refer to themselves as empaths and assert they become so overwhelmed at others suffering. This is not due to empathy. What is occurring in these situations is you carry a similar wound as the person or group you are attempting to have empathy for.
Yes. You can really relate to how they feel and most likely experience it in your body. However, because you are not fully healed, the wounded part of you is being activated in your body and overwhelming you emotionally. Please seek out help in healing these parts so you can be the truly compassionate person you are without it affecting you negatively. Additionally, you will not only do harm to yourself but end up effecting others negatively without intending to do so. This is what we refer to in therapy as moving from a ‘Wounded Healer’ to a ‘Wounded Infector’.
If you would like to understand more about empathy or experience it more fully, please contact me at 561-468-6464