Steven Webb © All rights reserved
Hey, welcome to Living Deeper Lives, the podcast that helps you to be fully human and to be fully accepted for who you are and your purpose. This week I want to talk about empathy and healthy empathy versus unhealthy empathy. And what do I mean by this? And this is something that I’ve been thinking about more and more the last few years, and it’s not something I see much around. You see a lot of people talking about empathy and what empathy is and what it means to be an empath, but I want to dig deeper into that. And that’s what Living Deeper Lives means. Let’s dig deeper into empathy. Where does it come from? How do we develop it? And what is the difference between healthy empathy and unhealthy empathy?
So briefly, let’s start with where does empathy come from? Are we born with it? Well, no. I hate to burst many people’s bubbles, but we’re not born in caring, loving, beautiful, empathetic creatures. We’re really not. We’re born into this world as a blank canvas, and then as life goes on, we develop an ego of what we want and what we enjoy in life. And then as time goes by, we develop the things we like and things we enjoy and we have relationships, but then when the relationship starts breaking down, or when we lose someone or somebody in our family passes away, we develop pain, we recognize what it’s like to be hurt and we feel grief. When we start feeling the grief, we start understanding what it feels like to be in pain. And then empathy really is just understanding someone else’s pain, putting ourselves in their shoes. So when someone comes along and tells us their story, we feel their pain, we feel their discomfort and their suffering.
And the thing is, with all of these things we develop, when we develop them, once we’re in them, we feel like we always had them, but we really didn’t. So that’s one of the first big myths that I would like to bust. When you suddenly feel like you’re a really caring, loving human, you suddenly feel that that’s always been you down to the core, but it really hasn’t. So recognize that empathy is a wonderful thing we develop. It’s a wonderful thing we grow and we learn to do, it’s not just given. Because if it’s just given, there’s nothing to be proud of.
It’s like any born talent if we don’t have to work at it, why be proud of it? It’s like when people say, “I’m proud to be Cornish.” It’s like, “Well, what did you do to become Cornish?” Nothing. So why be proud of something that… Be proud of something you work hard at, and empathy is something you work hard at. Empathy is something you learn. You learn through having hard times and pain, you learn when grieving and losing people. It’s like when I lost my granddad, and that loss developed pain inside of me, it developed grief. And with that, I learned what it was like to grieve for somebody, and then when someone else could come along one day and say, “I’ve lost my granddad.” I can relate to how they’re feeling. Not exactly, not entirely, because I don’t know how close they were or I don’t know their situation, I don’t know how caring they are or anything, but I can somewhat relate to it.
It’s the same with learning any of the deeper feelings, we have to experience it to know what it’s like. It’s like I can explain what it’s like to do a bungee jump all day long until you actually do it, you don’t know what it’s like. I’ve never done a bungee jump, so I don’t even know why I used that example. But unless you’ve lost somebody in your life, you’ll never know what it’s like to lose somebody. So that’s the same of all of our deeper feelings.
But what is healthy empathy and unhealthy empathy? Well, empathy is the same as any other skill. The higher you get at it, the better you get at it, the better your empathy is. And what do I mean by better empathy? How can you develop empathy as a skill? Well, if you put it into levels, now I’m not necessarily putting it into levels, but let’s say we do. When you first develop empathy it’s like, “Oh yeah, I really feel for them.” And then we carry it with us, we find it hard to put down, we actually take on that feeling, and that’s what we might be labelled as empaths. And I’m sorry, all you empaths out there, you’re all going to really not like this. But an empath, is somebody that feels everything deeply and it really upsets them, and they carry it along with them.
And I was there for a long time, or I felt like I was there for a long time. I might have been kidding myself, I don’t know. But when I felt like I was there, I was… If someone comes along and said, “Oh, you’re an empath.” I’d be, “Yeah. I take on other people’s feelings, I take on the world’s problems and how do we live in this world? This world is a really horrible, painful place to live in.” Well, that’s unhealthy empathy, taking on other people’s pains.
The next level of empathy is being able to feel their empathy, but not taking on, not carrying it. And there’s a wonderful Buddhist fable about this. There are two Buddhist monks who were walking down a lane, and they come across a beautiful girl that was wearing a long black dress, and she said, “I want to get to the other side of the lane but I don’t want to get my dress dirty.” And one of the monks looked up and said, “Well I’ll carry you across.” So okay, he picks her up and carries her to the other side and puts her down. And the other Buddhist monk says on the lane, “You really shouldn’t have done that. We’re not supposed to carry them, we’re not supposed to interact. We’re supposed to let people solve their own problems and such like.” And he said, “Okay, well it didn’t hurt just to carry her across.”
Then later that evening, the Buddhist monk that had a problem with her looked up and said to him, “Do you know what? I really think we did the wrong thing today. I really think it did not fit what we’re supposed to do.” And the other one looked up and goes, “Why you still carrying her?” And what it means by that is, you take a nurse or a doctor, if they experience someone’s pain during the day and they take it to the next patient and they take it home, they cannot function. They wouldn’t be able to deal with life if they took on everybody’s pains if they took on every person that passes away in their care or every illness they come across. And the same as therapists or counsellors.
And there is two versions here. There’s the version of disconnection. Well, I’m not going to take on their pain. I’m going to do it professionally and it doesn’t bother me. They’re not me and my family. That’s disconnection, that’s not empathy. Empathy is genuinely feeling their pain, is putting yourself in their shoes, in their story, in the best possible reference that you can have based on your experiences in life. So you dig deep in your life and experiences to experience what they’re going through. But then you let it go later. You let it go because it’s not part of your life, it’s not your pain to share, it’s not your pain and sorrow and grief to hold onto and no amount of you keeping it and staying with it, is going to help them.
If my daughter finds me up and says, “I’m really suffering today.” Me suffering as well, after the bit of empathy, me suffering as well is not going to help her one little bit. What if I get so stuck in the suffering? What if I start going back to her and going, “Oh, I know and I’m really suffering now. Kimber, your pain is really coming onto me.” And things like that now. I’m going to make her miserable as well, so both of us are going to be in a pit of misery. Well, that’s unhealthy empathy, and I hear many empaths are very much like that. How do I deal with life when I feel things deeply? Well, we recognize that empathy comes and goes, that we don’t have to hold it. It’s the same with many [inaudible 00:09:10], it doesn’t mean you’re less caring by moving on later. And when you come across them again, you can go, how are you feeling? And put yourself back in their feelings again. But there’s no point in you holding that fear in the time when you’re not with them or in the time… but there’s no point in you holding all the feelings in the time you’re not with them.
There’s no point in you going around in the same miserable, I’m grieving, feeling, understanding, deep caring way in which your their experience and their feelings, and you experience the same. I hope that makes sense? I hope you can see a difference between… That empathy is a good thing. I don’t want you to misunderstand that I’m saying empathy is a bad thing because I’m not. Empathy really is not a bad thing, it’s a great thing and I wish more people would develop it. But continue to develop your empathy, continue to improve it, make it better, so you can empathize in a deep, deep way without taking on their feelings. I’m Steven Webb and I help people through troubled and hard times when they’re struggling. And you can head over to my website and download a free meditation and get started to find your own inner peace. Yeah, take care and thank you. And, if you can review this podcast or subscribe and follow, that would be really appreciated. Have a good week, a new podcast every Monday. Bye.