Empathy is defined as “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” Empathy results from understanding another deeply. When we look at the world from our partner’s point of view, we begin to bridge the gap of understanding between us. When we are emotionally activated by tension, fear, and anger, it is extremely difficult to empathize with and understand the other’s perspective at first. We are too wrapped up in our own sensations and thoughts to think clearly.
Looking through our partner’s eyes.
If we can take a little time to soothe ourselves, some room becomes available to see a different perspective, we begin to notice that we have something to do with the predicament that we find ourselves in. The very instant we see our part in the breakdown, notice our lack of empathy and understanding, our anger lessens. And when we are not so busy being rigidly right, making the other person so wholly wrong, there is a bit of room to see the issue from their point of view. Moving off of our “heels in cement” position, allows the other to become more flexible too. By taking responsibility for our part in the conflict, a dynamic is set up whereby our partner is more apt to take responsibility for their part.
It's hard not to be defensive. Dropping defensiveness is one of the hardest things we do. Defensiveness has to do with trying to protect ourselves when we're feeling afraid. If our partner is trying to protect themselves by being evasive, withdrawing, trying to avoid being emotionally vulnerable, rather than trying to get her to open up, try asking yourself and/or her the question, "Is there anything that I am doing that is causing you to feel anxious or frightened now? Is there some way in which I am giving you a reason not to trust me? Am I acting or speaking in ways that make you feel that I am not respecting what you are saying or feeling?" “What is it that you want me to understand?”
Creating safety and understanding.
These are powerful questions and it's probably better not to ask them unless you're prepared to accept your partner's responses without judging or questioning them. To do so would only give her more reason to feel unsafe and misunderstood. Listening without blame or judgment promotes empathy, and is the antidote to defensiveness. Tension can dissolve very quickly if we are willing to sincerely try to empathize with the truth of our partner's feelings and perceptions.
When a deliberate decision is made both to take the time and effort to search for our own part in any given breakdown and to put ourselves aside enough to look at the issue from the other’s point of view, possibility for understanding expands. Over time, we develop into more empathic partners. When we make the commitment to become more empathic, we begin to look for our complicity over time gives rise to less arguing, more harmony, and more closeness in the relationship. We discover that empathy is truly the heart of connection.
Linda Bloom L.C.S.W. has served as psychotherapist and seminar leader practicing relationship counseling almost forty years. Check out her OMTimes Bio.
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