You can’t breathe without empathy! It’s oxygen for your soul.
But “Don’t feel” is the unconscious rule if your parent, pastor, or spouse are 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 are 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, then 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, or addiction. 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 you know with confidence that God is listening to you? 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 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).
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 oxygen for our soul.
Best of all, the Son of God gave us perfect empathy when he set aside his divine privileges, left the glory of heaven, and took on human flesh to experience our life on earth, suffer our trials, feel our longings and pains and joys, and bear our sin on the cross (Phil. 2:5-11; Heb. 4:15). Christ’s empathetic love is what ministers to us the divine gifts of forgiveness, new life, intimacy with God, and the power to love other people well.
Who is a safe person that you can talk to today? Who can you share your inner feelings with to help you trust God’s tender heart for you? 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 heart of the ministry offered by our Network of Sr. Spiritual Directors.
Listen to this week’s Soul Talks podcast: “Empathy in Spiritual Direction.” Empathy is a key ingredient to hearing from the Lord and experiencing his love while engaging in spiritual direction. A Spiritual Director skilled in offering empathy can create a warm and safe space for you to pay attention to God’s movement in your life. The ability to slow down, to dedicate intentional and confidential time for you to bring your hopes, learnings, questions, and distress to an ambassador of Christ, makes it possible for you to mine treasures from God.
Listen to a past Soul Talks podcast: “EQ: Leading With Empathy.”