In a brand new piece for us to mark Empathy Week, Dr Kerry Ashton-Shaw looks at empathy and its importance in healthy committed relationships
Empathy is the ability to love, to understand and share the feelings of others, and it is essential for healthy committed relationships.
We need empathy to not only make our relationships work but for our communities and societies to function, without empathy, there is no working together, no doing things to help others, no charity and no love.
So empathy is very important!
For us humans, one of the most important things for us to do is develop and maintain relationships. In order to do this, we need to be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to see the world in the same way they do.
This is where empathy comes in.
We develop the ability to empathise with others based on the world around us, so if we grew up with healthy relationships and experienced being cared for, shared with, listened to and felt nurtured and safe we tend to develop the ability to have empathy with others.
Cognitive empathy is when we can imagine how someone else is feeling but we don’t feel their emotions.
For example, you notice your friend looks upset and ask if she’s okay, she tells you about her horrible journey to college that morning. You say “wow that must have been so scary!” We can also experience emotional empathy when we do feel the same or similar feelings to the other person.
For example, you feel happy when your partner is happy.
How could empathy help in a relationship?
Imagine you are in a relationship with a really messy partner and you like things to be clean and tidy. Your partner is empathetic to how you feel and can imagine how upset and frustrated you will feel if she leaves lots of mess. So she changes her behaviour and picks up after herself, even though she doesn’t mind the mess.
What if your relationship seems to be lacking in empathy?
What if you are having difficulties and arguments?
First, you can think about why you aren’t feeling empathy towards your partner, as empathy is usually a natural response to others, when does experiencing a lack of empathy usually happen?
You might notice that you are getting too caught up in how you are feeling and thinking and when this happens it’s hard to understand how your partner feels. Try to notice the changes in sensations in your body, you may notice your heart racing and your skin is flushed, try to notice the emotion attached to these sensations. These are your feelings and they could get in the way of you understanding your partner’s feelings.
Are your thoughts swirling around your head?
It’s hard to think about what your partner is thinking when your thoughts are racing.
Once you recognise these signals that you won’t be able to empathise, take a break from the situation.
Talk to your partner once you don’t feel so caught up in your own thoughts and feelings and you have the space to empathise with your partner, you will be able to resolve arguments and difficulties in a more positive way.
To boost empathy in your relationships try to give your partner your full attention, without being tied up in your own thoughts, and ask your partner to do the same for you. Sometimes we can get into the habit of only seeing the negatives in our partner.
Try to look for the positives instead and notice these.
Finally, remember to be empathetic towards yourself too.
Try to practice self-compassion, treat yourself with kindness, care and understanding. Notice if you are having a tough day and remind yourself that you are doing your best to get through it. Have a plan about what you will do to look after yourself if you are struggling. Remind yourself that no one is perfect and you are doing your best.
Hopefully, with these things in place, your relationships will be enhanced by empathy and continue to be healthy, committed and positive.
Dr Kerry Ashton-Shaw