The Healing Power of Empathy
Empathy vitalizes the self. Empathy enriches relationships. Empathy builds civilizations. I’ve seen the power of empathy, and it works. Its power is not coercive, nor competitive. Its power is nourishing. It is empowering.
Daniel Pink, in his book A Whole New Mind: Why right-brainers will rule the future, poses a compelling argument that our civilization is undergoing a seismic shift, where the future belongs to people with key abilities, one of which is empathy. Empathy is understood to be the ability to “stand in another person’s shoes,” or “see the world from another person’s eyes.” Pink gives an eloquent working definition of empathy:
“Empathy is a stunning act of imaginative derring-do, the ultimate virtual reality — climbing into another’s mind to experience the world from that person’s perspective.”
The moment you empathize with another person, it is that moment you become that person. It is an as if experience. Empathy, when communicated and received by another, can be curative of suffering.
Margaret Warner describes the curative potential from the client-centred therapy tradition when she writes:
“… empathy is curative in the sense that it encourages clients to hold their own experiences in attention in ways that tend to stimulate a deep reworking of personal life issues.”
Empathy, here, refers not only to the ability to read another person’s internal experience, it is also an act of optimal responsiveness to another in need. As such, empathy is an intricate act of reading and optimal response to another. The receiver of such empathy is enabled to activate innate self-righting tendencies and growth developing processes.
The empathizer acts like a skillful obstetrician, who monitors closely in labour where the baby is in the mother’s birth canal, intervening only when necessary, always patiently encouraging, and simply trusting that the delivery process, despite the labouring pains, will result in a healthy baby and happy mom.
Therapists help to provide a safe place where an empathic encounter can take place, where individuals, couples, or family members can interact in ways that foster empathic communication. Frequently, we see the healing power of such empathy, which leads to deepening understanding and opens the door to the possibility of reconciliation.
But it is important that we also learn to exercise empathy towards ourselves, if we are to avoid blame, criticism and rejection of the other.
The following exercise in mindful practice directs empathy towards yourself:
Such an exercise, which deepens compassion towards the self, can increase our capacity for empathy towards the other.
by Danny Yeung, M.D.
For Further Reading:
Pink, Daniel. A Whole New Mind: Why right-brainers will rule the world. Penguin, 2006.