Empathy is the ability to identify with another person and understand what that person is feeling and experiencing. This can be accomplished through a number of means, including “walking in that person’s shoes,” providing support and genuine concern for the person, experiencing similar emotions as the person, and taking the same perspective as another person. Unlike sympathy (which seeks to support from a “distance”), empathy requires a deeper connection with the other person-one in which the other person’s emotions are actually internalized and understood from within. Empathy helps a person in crisis to feel understood and connected to the other person. It also helps provide a safe and trusting environment for the other person, as well as lays the foundation for good rapport. The following paper will outline two examples from my own personal life: One where I have received empathy and the other where I provided empathy to someone else.
For me, one of the greatest sources of empathy has been my best friend, who I met when I moved here from China. For me, moving from another country was a complete culture shock. It can also be very isolating and feel lonely at times, and not just because I was physically away from my friends and family, but also because I sometimes felt as though no one understood me (and vice versa). I literally felt like that (because I did not speak the language very well), but also because I was different culturally and physically. When I studied in California, I met Han (who is originally from Korea) and we immediately bonded. It was very comforting to meet someone else who shared a lot of the same feelings and experiences as me. When I would have a bad day because I missed my family or felt lonely, he would often say to me, “I know exactly how you feel.” People often say this, but they do not actually mean it, but when Han would say it, I felt as though he completely understood me. He did not just hear me out, but he actively listened and made me feel as though what I had to say was important. Sometimes he would share his own feelings regarding similar situations, which made me feel like I was not alone. Because of this common experience that we shared, we developed a very strong, trusting, and mutually respectful relationship. I always knew that I could count on him and we are best friends today, even though I now live across the country from him.
The time that most stands out in my mind for when I provided someone with empathy is when my little brother got bullied in school and came home very upset. While my parents were trying to be understanding and comforting, it was clear to me that they were not very empathic. They said things like, “sorry,” and “you just need to ignore them.” It appeared to me that they had never themselves experienced such a problems and were having some difficulty putting themselves in his shoes. It is not to say that you necessarily have to have the same exact experience as someone else in order to have empathy, but I think that at some level, it can be quite helpful. Personally, I was bullied quite a bit when we first moved here because I think that kids sometimes have difficulty making sense of things that are different from them. In reaction to this confusion (and maybe because it felt uncomfortable), kids often made disparaging remarks regarding my appearance or my accent. Most of the time I could just ignore it and go about my day, but sometimes it would hurt my feelings.
As such, when I saw that my brother was going through the same situation as I had, I immediately felt empathy towards him. I took him aside and shared my story with him, which was shocking to him because I had never talked about it before. It was clear that he was comforted in knowing that he was not alone and that I knew exactly where he was coming from. I also tried to shy away from giving him advice or judging him in any way. I merely wanted him to feel safe and understood because I figured that once I established this with him, then he would be more likely to follow any advice. It felt really good to see that I was able to help “pay forward” some of the empathy that I had received in my past.