Empathy is vital for any relationship – but for a lot of people, it’s not a straightforward thing. Someone might want to be empathetic but may still struggle to understand how someone else is feeling, and how to appropriately respond.
It’s okay if you struggle with empathy – what matters is that you care enough to try. Thankfully, there are numerous tools, tricks and supports that can help you better understand empathy, and learn how to use it in your relationships.
Empathy can play a huge role in strengthening relationships, deepening connections, and helping you (and those around you) feel heard, cared for, and supported.
What is empathy? How is it different from sympathy?
Empathy is the ability to understand someone’s feelings or situation. There are three types of empathy: affective, somatic and cognitive. Affective empathy refers to the ability to respond to someone else’s emotions, while somatic means being able to feel someone else’s feelings, and cognitive is to understand their feelings.
Put simply, empathy is the ability to put yourself into someone else’s situation and imagine how they might feel – but that’s not always easy to do, especially if you don’t have similar experiences to look back on, or you struggle with recognising or feeling emotions.
Sympathy, on the other hand, is a feeling of sadness or pity towards someone else going through a difficult thing – you feel sorry they’re experiencing something unpleasant.
While sympathy and empathy often go hand-in-hand, empathy is a lot deeper – because you’re trying to actually imagine what it’s like to be in someone else’s situation, which is an incredibly important tool for any relationship.
Why is empathy important in relationships?
Empathy is an important part of any relationship – especially a romantic relationship. You want to feel like your partner knows you, understands you, and that you’re cared for and supported.
- Can help you build trust, collaborate better, and build healthier relationships
- Can bring us closer, and can help us grow by genuinely considering perspectives, feelings and experiences that might differ from our own
- Shows that you care about someone’s wellbeing, which is a vital part of feeling loved and valued in a relationship
- Helps us to feel validated in our relationships, and is often the glue that holds us together, especially during challenging times.
Everyone is different, and while empathy might be harder for some people, it’s absolutely possible to become more empathetic, or at least understand it better.
How can we get better at being empathetic?
To some people, empathy is very straightforward. To others, it’s a confusing labyrinth of emotions, experiences and expectations.
Struggling with empathy doesn’t mean you’re a bad person who doesn’t care about others – it just means you might need a little more support to imagine yourself in someone else’s situation.
A good first step is to actively listen to your partner and process what they’re saying, and how it makes them feel. It’s a good idea to reflect their words back to them, in the way that you’ve understood it. This also helps with potential confusion, because you can make sure you’re both on the same page.
Listen to why the other person is feeling a certain way, and consider all the other stresses that might accumulate and negatively amplify their feelings. For example, if they’re going through the grief of losing a loved one, and you’ve never lost someone close to you, it might be hard for you to understand how they feel. A good way to practice empathy in this example might be to think about someone in your life that you love – how would you feel if they were gone?
It can take time to develop empathy – and it’s okay to admit you don’t understand how someone else is feeling. Emotions are complex and difficult. But what’s important is that you care, and you’re taking steps to try to understand and connect with someone else.
What are empathy blockers and how can they impact my relationship?
Communication can be complicated, especially between neurotypical and neurodivergent people. And sometimes, no matter how hard we try, miscommunication can prevent us effectively listening to and supporting someone.
“Empathy blockers” are things that can get in the way of empathy and effective communication. And empathy blockers can play a huge role in how people feel in their relationships.
Empathy blockers can include things like:
- Bringing the topic back to yourself, other than sharing relatable examples to show you understand
- Advising or fixing, without listening to or understanding how someone is feeling
- Comparative suffering, like saying “well, other people have it worse”
- Educating with unsolicited advice. It may be well-intentioned, but unnecessary – and frustrating
- Analysing, like saying “the reason you’re feeling like this is because you let anxiety get in the way,” when that may not be the case. That is your perspective, not theirs, and may not be helpful
- Downplaying and diminishing you. Implying or saying the other person is making a big deal over something small, or that something isn’t “that bad”
- Forcing a positive spin on things. Toxic positivity is harmful – it’s impossible to always be positive. We need the opportunity to feel and process all emotions, even painful ones.
These are just a few examples that can block our ability to be empathetic – so it’s important to keep them in mind, and how they might impact the person you care about.
Of course, every situation is different – and everyone communicates differently. But the key is to listen, without judgement. You don’t always have to fix the problem someone else is going through, you just have to be there for them.
The importance of looking after ourselves
We always want to be there for the people we care about, but it’s really important to take care of ourselves, too. Think of it like putting your own oxygen mask on first, before you can help others.
We can’t always be empathetic – it’s exhausting, which is why it’s important to set boundaries. Just because you love someone doesn’t mean you need to become their unofficial counsellor.
Empathy and support from loved ones can be incredibly helpful, but it can’t replace professional mental health support. It’s okay to admit when something is too much for you. You need to make sure you’re well enough before you can address or consider someone else’s needs and situation.
It’s also important to take the time to reflect on how supporting someone else might impact you, especially when it can be distressing to help someone through a difficult situation – it’s hard to see a loved one suffering. It’s only natural we want to help – but our own wellbeing has to come first. Don’t get stuck into someone else’s story. Listen and empathise, but at a certain point, you have to step out of their story, and into your own.
Remember you may also need time to rest and recover – especially if supporting someone and being empathetic has caused you additional distress. It’s OK to let go and get a professional’s help – someone else’s darkness is not yours to hold.
Think you might have become someone’s accidental counsellor? We can help.
Relationships Australia NSW runs an Accidental Counsellor workshop, designed to help people who aren’t trained counsellors, but often find themselves in a counselling role “by accident”. You can participate online, face-to-face at your workplace, or in our training room at Macquarie Park.
The workshop can be a good first step for learning about empathy, gaining skills and confidence to help you support someone experiencing distress, and knowing how to refer the person to appropriate professional services if they need it.