What is Empathy?
It can be so hard to be along-side distressed loved ones. So often we want to take the distress away and offer solution as the uncomfortable and difficult emotions become too hard to bear. When we meet with others in distress it can be painful and we can turn to offering guidance, try to lessen the experiences, blame someone or do something to make it all better.
Our capacity to be with someone, to hold a silence if needed and to give attention to some of the difficult feelings and sensations can reveal our abilities to empathise with those we care for. Empathy is our ability to be with another’s emotions and sensations. It is our wish to understand someone’s experiences from their point of view and it is at the heart of connection. When working with children in therapy, empathy is fundamental and within empathic interactions, children get to see that they can be both the light and shade in another’s eyes.
In psychotherapy, the therapist gets to know their clients and in turn the client gets to know that they are known – this is empathy in action. We cannot undervalue this as an experience and it is core to why therapy works.
From a Child’s Perspective
The following example can be helpful to reflect upon when we want to consider a child’s perspective and how, as parents, we can easily miss empathic connection. Misconnection for children can be so difficult to experience and, as psychiatrist Daniel Stern points out in the extract below, it can leave young children feeling alone.
An imagined one-year old’s experience of touching a pool of light on the floor:
Mother: Just sunshine
Child: but it was my pool, a special pool
Mother: it’s just to look at
Child: I heard it, I felt it too
Mother: only light on the floor
Mother: its dirty
Child: I was in it
Child: when she stops, the pieces lie all around. That world is gone. I feel sad. I am all by myself.
On Bring Validated
Without empathy children can feel deeply alone. Empathy encourages children to invest in themselves and can help them to find the right words and tone to let someone know how they feel. Repetition of empathic experiences can bring so much into our lives and we may create new feelings, images and thoughts that influence how we see ourselves and others. Being along-side another’s experiences, imagining into their experiences can be both rich and fulfilling, and will undoubtedly encourage the development of healthy and happy relationships.
Gemma Hurley is an an Integrative Child Psychotherapist who works alongside families, young adults and children from our Lewes and Hove Practices. To find out more or to arrange an appointment, please contact us here.