“No one understands what I’m going through.”
You may have thought this before. And a lot of the time, this is probably true. It’s difficult to find someone who knows exactly how you feel when you go through hard times. But having a shoulder to cry on still helps you feel better, and having someone listen to you helps you calm down. This is the power of empathy.
Empathy is a gift. Some people are natural empaths. Others have to work harder at it. That’s why we’re writing this article: to give you a guide to being a more empathetic friend. Because everyone needs someone to lean on now and then.
We Need More Empathetic People
We need more empathetic people in the world. Empathy has the power to heal people from pain and heartache. But so often we miss the mark when we try to be empathetic. We say something that makes a friend feel worse, or we ourselves start feeling more negative emotions as a result. This is probably because we misunderstand what empathy actually is.
Empathy is the ability to understand someone else’s emotions and then connect with them through those emotions. You don’t need to have gone through exactly the same situation. You only need to be able to sit with them, validate them, and let them know you’re there to support them. It’s helpful to draw upon your own experience when you can.
What happens when there’s no empathy in the world? We judge people. We disregard what’s going on in their lives. We disconnect from each other. But when we live more empathetically, we have more compassion for others. We give them the benefit of the doubt. We cultivate deeper and more authentic relationships. Empathy is a force that could change the world.
Four Elements of Empathy
Empathy is never expressed exactly the same way between two people, because everyone is different. How you comfort your mother will be different to how you comfort a romantic partner. This is why you can’t really be empathetic unless you’re authentic.
There are four elements to being an authentic empath:
- Seeing things from their perspective. True empathy takes individuality into account: it sees things from their perspective and honors what they’re feeling. You can’t comfort them unless you go there with them.
- Refraining from judgment. People react differently to things. So if you find yourself wondering why someone is so sad about something, stop for a moment, try to see things from their perspective, and then refrain from judging them for it.
- Understanding their feelings. An important thing here is that you truly listen to them, so you can have a solid understanding of what they’re actually feeling. There are a lot of emotions in the world, and they’re often really nuanced.
- Communicating that understanding. This part is really simple, but it’s often what we miss when trying to express empathy. People need to hear that they aren’t alone. Just tell them you understand what they’re feeling and why they feel that way.
So if you want to be a more empathetic friend, think about each of these elements the next time someone in your life could use your support. Before you give a response, consider things from their perspective, let go of your judgment, seek to understand their emotions, and then let them know you understand what they’re going through.
Empathy vs. Sympathy
Sometimes, empathy is conflated with sympathy. But they’re actually different things. While empathy is feeling someone’s feelings with them, sympathy is feeling pity for someone else. Sympathy doesn’t connect people together in the way that empathy does. If you want to be a more empathetic friend, it’s important to know the difference. Brene Brown, a human emotion researcher, describes the difference between empathy and sympathy in this video.
To sum it up, empathy is sitting with someone in their pain, and sympathy is trying to drag them out of the pain before they’re ready. While you might think that sugar-coating their experience will be helpful, you’re not engaging emotionally with them at all. And in order to truly express empathy, you must seek to understand where they’re coming from. You must tap into your own emotional experiences to connect with them. So, what does this look like in practice? Brene Brown says in the video, “Rarely can a response make anything better. What makes something better is connection.”
For example, if your friend gets rejected for a part in a play and you aren’t an actor, you can think back to a time you experienced rejection—maybe a breakup, a job interview, or an assignment in school—and tap into that. You don’t need to pretend you know exactly how they feel, because you don’t. All you need to do is understand the pain that comes with rejection and let them know. You might think that telling them “Well, you can always try next year!” will make them feel better, but when they’re in the thick of their disappointment, it can actually have an opposite effect. Your sympathy may be well-meaning, but it won’t relieve their burdens at that moment. They need to know they have your support, that they aren’t alone, and that someone understands.
How to Develop Empathy with Spirituality
With a basic understanding of empathy, now the question is: How do you become a more empathetic friend? Maybe it doesn’t come naturally to you. That’s okay. You can develop empathy with spirituality.
Spirituality might not seem to directly relate with empathy. But having a belief in a higher power that connects all of creation together can help you see the divinity in everyone. When you see people as godly creations, you’ll want to treat them with care and respect. Loving others is central to spirituality.
God has an infinite love for all of creation. You can draw upon that love to develop empathy. Your higher power wants to help you make meaningful connections with others, so don’t be afraid to ask for their help in prayer. Pray for opportunities to express empathy. Pray to understand others’ points of view. Pray for people who are going through difficult times. God can give you added strength to be more empathetic. These are some ways you can use spirituality to become a more empathetic friend.
Get Help with Empathy from Skylight
The Skylight app has loads of content to help you with your spiritual wellness practice, including how to improve your relationships with others. There are a few visualization exercises that might give you some inspiration for developing empathy. We feature two in this article.
In Four Cards, you tap into your power to make someone’s day. Here’s the transcript of the audio exercise:
Close your eyes and make yourself comfortable, bringing your awareness to your breath. Imagine that you're seated at a table. On the table are four cards, face down. Each card has a name written on it. A name of someone you know.
Choose a card and flip it over. Whose name is on the card? Now imagine that person's face in your mind. You have the power to make their day. You just need a little bit of help first.
As best you can, open your heart. Expose that deep, vulnerable place within you. Open it wide to the world around you, to the universe, to God. Remember the person on the card, and ask God to help you see what small thing you might do for them today.
And now, listen. What ideas, what images come to mind? Will you send them a text? Call them? Invite them to get lunch? Or does something else come to mind? Look for subtle feelings of peace or positive energy that confirm your idea.
Now take this energy and go do it.
Or maybe you’d prefer Sleeve Problem, where you see the beauty in going through the same problem as someone else. Here’s the transcript:
There's a stain on your sleeve. Picture it there. There's nothing you can do to rub it off. When you look closer, you see that the stain is actually a phrase. A phrase describing the major problem you're dealing with right now.
Now look up from your sleeve. Imagine that everyone around you has their biggest problem written on their sleeves. You aren't close enough to read them, but you see the stains.
One person comes closer to you until you can read what's on their sleeve. It's exactly the same as yours. They are dealing with the same thing you are.
What advice would you give them? Is there anything you would ask them? And finally, how can you help those whose sleeves are harder to read?
Skylight is here to help you strengthen your relationship with God in accessible, meaningful ways. We believe that everyone can benefit from a personal connection with God. Our blog covers topics from the divine feminine to forest bathing. On the app, you’ll find hundreds of spiritual exercises—yoga, meditations, affirmations, Q&A’s, podcasts, and more. And all of it is free for you to enjoy. So what are you waiting for? It’s time to level up your spiritual wellness practice.