Last week, I told you about how important it is to validate, or let your spouse know that he or she is understood. In this week’s article, I want to further explain how to actually increase empathy. First, let me clarify that empathy and sympathy are not the same. With sympathy, you feel sorry for the other person. But when you express empathy, it’s as if you are seeing the world through the other person’s eyes; you’re able to understand how they’re feeling.
A Piece of the Puzzle is Missing
Recently, I read an article in which the author stated his belief that some people suffered from Empathy Deficit Disorder. He maintains that because such persons are self-absorbed they are unable to tune into what others experience. This is a result of having been too focused on earning power, status or money rather than being concerned with forming healthy relationships.
I do agree that this focus could cause a lack of empathy. However, I would suggest that a lack of empathy could also occur as a result of early childhood experiences. In certain families, parents are not able to attend properly to their child. The child ends up feeling like he or she doesn’t matter, which is quite painful for anyone, especially a child. And so, these children survive by shutting down their emotions. As adults, they become "intellectualizers"—sort of cut off at the head.
There is good news, however. It’s been discovered that even as adults our brains continue to grow and make new connections—the brain has the capacity for neuroplasticity. Another discovery is that within the brain are mirror neurons. These are neurons that become active merely be observing others; they literally mirror the other person. They will "fire" and react when viewing someone in distress, when viewing another taking some action and even when witnessing the other person responding altruistically.
(By the way, a major premise of my award winning book, "Mindfulness and The Art of Choice: Transform Your Life," are tools to help the brain make new connections.)
Turning Things Around
Naturally, all of this is great in concept, but how does it impact your life and your relationship? As I always tell the people with whom I work, you can’t change something unless you’re aware of it. So it’s time for some self-observation. For some of you this will mean taking a long, hard, honest look at yourself. Do you frequently find that you see other people react to things and just don’t get it? Are you just very much into your own thing? Are things and money sometimes more important than people?
My guess would be that the only "help" you get around this concern comes in the form of your mate complaining that you never seem to care or that nothing he or she says seems to matter. And though you may have ignored these remarks in the past, it may be time to take the comments seriously.
One particular client with whom I work did shut down in childhood. She’s very sensitive to the fact that in many cases she just doesn’t know how to handle herself. But she watches others closely to observe how they respond in various situations. Then, when she’s in a similar situation, she corrects her behavior accordingly. Kudos to her!
Empathy may not be your strength and it may not be your fault. But you can make a change and it is your responsibility to work on doing so. Start to focus on how others are behaving; be aware of what they are saying verbally and non-verbally. When you do, your mirror neurons will go into action and learn. Yes, it will take a little while but know that it can be done!
And… know that it will make a big difference in your relationship because empathy brings a great richness to it.
Part 1: Building Emotional Connections in Your Marriage
Part 3: How to Increase Emotional Attachments in Your Marriage
Karen Sherman, Ph.D., (www.drkarensherman.com) is a practicing psychologist in relationships and lifestyle issues for over 20 years. She offers teleseminars and is the author of "Mindfulness and the Art of Choice: Transform Your Life" and co-author of "Marriage Magic! Find It, Keep It, and Make it Last." You can sign up for her free monthly newsletter with relationship tips at www.ChoiceRelationships.com