Authentic Empathy and Understanding
Estimated Reading Time: 6 Minutes
Are authentic empathy and understating the same thing?
When you empathize with someone, does that automatically mean you understand them? When you understand someone, does that mean you automatically empathize with them? When someone says they understand you, does that automatically mean they empathize with you? How would it feel to have people both understand you and have authentic empathy (not pity) for you?
Throughout my life, I have been fortunate enough to have had many, well-meaning people who say they understand me. These have been friends who either wanted to relate to me or show me compassion and caring. For the longest time, I believed that understanding was enough. I never thought that there was something deeper. Something I yearned to give and receive more than understanding. For the longest time, I never thought about the concept of authentic empathy.
Looking back on the early years of my life, while I did have a few relationships and a few close friends that came to understand me, most people who knew me would say that they put up with me and my idiosyncrasies. In some respects, having people ignore my idiosyncrasies was a good thing. It reduced friction and allowed me to grow in my own ways. It also gave me a false sense that people knew and understood me. This became a detriment when I got on people’s nerves too bad.
When I would invariably do something that would annoy someone once too often, we would get into an argument or a fight. Afterwards, I would be so upset and wonder why people did not just understand me. I would perceive other people always getting the benefit of the doubt and wonder why I was not afforded the same opportunity. Yep, I spent years having many good old pity parties for one. Over time, I grew to realize that, if I expected understanding from others, I needed to be willing to understand them as well.
The desire to understand others led me on a lifelong journey of studying people, studying myself and personal growth. Reading articles, listening to books, watching videos, studying anything and everything I could. I would use every opportunity I could to learn more about why people (including myself) do what we do. I believed that one of the benefits of understanding myself and others better would be that other people would naturally understand me better. I also embarked on a personal growth journey to rid myself of the idiosyncrasies that did not serve me well.
As I grew to understand others better, I related to others better. As I displayed more understanding for others, I was fortunate enough to have people come into my life who understood me better. These people said they understood me, showed me they understood me, continued to work when it was not easy to understand me and told me how much they understood me. However, when it came right down to it, there were still conflicts and issues that I believed would not have been there if they understood the real me and I understood them.
After some soul-searching, I realized that they did understand me at an intellectual level. I also believed I understood them. However, they did not (or could not) empathize with what I had been through. It was also a struggle for me to empathize with them. The challenging part was that none of us knew there was anything deeper than understanding. None of us knew that there was something more than understanding to work towards. It was in that moment that I realized the deeper goal to work towards was authentic empathy.
I realized that understanding and authentic empathy are two different things. I realized that, if I went from understanding people, to having sympathy for what they were going through, to having authentic empathy for them, it would change my life. This realization empowered me to be softer towards people in more cases. It empowered me to relate to more people even if we could not see eye-to-eye. It reduced the amount of stress in my life by removing some of the negative feelings and fear that come with trying to understand people. Negative feelings such as being critical of what they are doing. Fears such as the fear of condoning what they are doing and the fear of pushing them to do it more.
Saying we understand someone means that we can relate to what that person did because it resonates with us. We can either see ourselves doing the same thing that person did, or we can intellectually understand why they did what they did even if we do not agree with them. Because we either cannot see ourselves doing what that person did or cannot intellectually understand why they did what they did, often we will see something, get frustrated and say, “I do not understand why that person did what they did.” Saying we empathize with someone goes deeper than understanding and is something most people rarely do.
When we experience authentic empathy for someone, we feel their pain. We are acknowledging that, if we had the same life experiences and genetic make-up as that person, we would do the same thing. Which is true. If we were 100% the same with 100% the same experiences as the other person, we would do the same thing. However, since we are not, chances are we would make a different decision. Authentic empathy is the true definition of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.
While most of the time when you experience authentic empathy for someone, you also understand them, that is not always the case and that is ok. While it is wonderful to be able to say to someone, “I understand and empathize with you.”, it is ok to also focus only on experiencing authentic empathy for someone. When you find yourself saying, “I do not understand why that person did what they did.”, I invite you to do your best to follow it up with, “I do empathize with them though.”
What if you started the experience authentic empathy for others? How would that change the way you felt or interacted with people? While we often have the desire for people to understand us and we often hear about people being misunderstood, what if thing we were after was authentic empathy from other people? What do you feel is more important, that someone understands you or that they can experience authentic empathy for you?
How this applies to fear…
When it comes to fear, understanding and authentic empathy, when somebody understands you but cannot empathize with you, their fear reaction is kicking in. It could be their fear of condoning what you are doing and pushing you to do it more, or their fear of mirroring what you are doing and doing it themselves. Knowing and understanding this will allow you to experience authentic empathy for that person until the time they can increase their level of authentic empathy for you.
How this applies to WACASHWI…
When it comes to WACASHWI and authentic empathy, as you move things on to and through the process, the more authentic empathy you get from and give to others, the easier things will be. This empathy will empower you to grow and afford you the room to do it. It means you will be interacting with people at a higher level of awareness which will lead to more effective help from the people closest to you.
Your daily invitations…
- I invite you to think about people you understand and ask yourself: Do I empathize with this person?
- I invite you to think about people who understand you and ask yourself: Does this person empathize with me?
- I invite you to consider how you would treat someone differently if you did empathize with them.
- I invite you to consider how someone would treat you differently if they did empathize with you.
- I invite you to write down your thoughts, feelings, and actions in your journal.
- I invite you to talk with the people you thought about above if it is safe to do so.
Final step – how will you implement one thing you learned today in your life?