You can’t breathe without empathy! It’s oxygen for your soul.
But “Don’t feel” is the rule if your parent, pastor, or spouse is an alcoholic. Or if they’re a workaholic, religion-aholic, or any other kind of aholic. And that’s what people around you experience if you’re the one who uses compulsive behavior to deny emotion.
Without a friend who feels our hurt, stress, and longings with us our souls shrivel up and die. Are you a compassionate companion for others? Do you listen with sensitivity, ask gentle questions, and validate the emotions of others? Do you know how to emotionally hold someone who is distressed?
If you’re on a plane with your child and there’s a problem you know to put your oxygen mask on first and then to help your child. For empathy to come out of you it has to be in you. When you’re breathing well you can help someone else to breathe too.
In other words, you have to learn to be vulnerable and receive. “Unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). And if it wasn’t safe for you to be needy in your formative years than you need to go through a healing and re-learning process.
I talk with a lot of people who don’t understand why they struggle with depression, anxiety, recurring relational conflicts, and the like. They say, “I wasn’t abused. I wasn’t raised in an alcoholic home. My parents loved me.”
But when I ask about their childhood I discover that they grew up with little or no empathy. When I ask about their adult life it’s the same. They’ve been breathing smoggy air their whole lives and don’t even know it! I’m not saying this is their parents’ fault — they’re responsible adults. They haven’t learned how to ask for empathy. Often they haven’t learned how to receive empathy even if they’re with someone who has compassion for them.
If you’re missing empathy you’re not a victim. Yes, you may have been mistreated or poorly loved, but it’s up to you to take courage from Christ, to trust, to feel, to heal, to grow. Find a wounded healer. Become a wounded healer.
The Disciple Jesus Loved wrote, “We love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19). What is love? “Love is patient, love is kind,” Paul answers (1 Cor. 13:4). A primary expression of patience and kindness is listening. “Be slow to speak and quick to listen” (James 1:19). So, “We listen because God first listened to us.”
But how would we know with confidence that God is listening to us? It’s not enough to go off by yourself and read your Bible. That’s important, but the emotional child in you needs more than Bible teachings. We and the people around us also need Christ’s ambassadors, people in the Body of Christ who mediate to us the compassion of Christ and friendship of God (2 Cor. 5:20). It’s about authentic relationship.
What is empathy? Empathy is not the same as sympathy. Sympathy is feeling bad for someone — no one wants pity that holds them at arm’s length!
Empathy is not the same as reassurance. Reassurance is cheerleading: “Don’t feel sad, it’ll be okay God has a good purpose for you in this divorce.” That sort of “look on the bright side” advice is invalidating and hurtful. The only type of reassurance that is helpful is when it’s based on facts that you don’t know, like your doctor looking at your X-rays says, “I have good news. You don’t have cancer!”
Empathy is not merely listening — that’s only how it starts. To offer empathy to someone is to feel for and with them and then to put words to validate their emotions.
Empathy is active listening. It’s compassion in words: “It seems you feel disappointed… I understand that this loss leaves you feeling empty… I’m concerned for you, tell me more about your experience…”
Empathy heals loneliness, fear, and shame. It’s the key to conflict resolution. It’s the vehicle for the life of God to infuse a soul.
Who is a safe person that you can talk to today about how you’re feeling? Who needs your listening, caring heart? Every day we need to give and receive empathy. Rarely does a day go by that Kristi and I don’t do this for each other–we call it “Soul Talks,” which is the name of our weekly podcast. And it’s the most important ministry we offer to pastors and leaders.
There is no intimacy with God or fruitful ministry to others without empathy.
Listen to this week’s SoulTalk: Bill and Kristi continue their series on EQ by highlighting leading with empathy. Empathy is both critical to give and to receive. In this episode, Bill and Kristi role-play a soul talk of a grieving pastor so you can have a taste of giving and receiving empathy.