The Gift of Empathy

I had the privilege recently of talking to a room full of teenagers and their families about mental health, specifically how to create safety in our families. As you can imagine, it felt like a tall order to unpack a topic like that in a mere twenty minutes.

I started my talk by asking, with a show of hands, how many of those present had ever heard the word, empathy. Nearly every hand went up. What isn’t always as familiar to us, however, is the strong relationship between empathy and safety.

A simple google search reveals astounding statistics supporting the correlation between the presence of empathy in our homes and workplaces, and how safe we feel in those places and relationships.

There are three different kinds of empathy:

  1. Affective Empathy – the ability to emotionally feel what another is feeling.

  2. Somatic Empathy – the ability to physically feel what another is feeling.

  3. Cognitive Empathy – the ability to mentally understand and feel what another is feeling.

I shared how these different ways of empathizing communicate that we see, hear, know and care about the experience of the other person. Essentially, we are holding up a mirror and reflecting back the emotions, physical sensations, and thoughts that the other person is experiencing. This is deeply impactful, especially when it comes to creating safety in our relationships.

One of the most powerful gifts I offer my clients is that of an empathetic witness, and this isn’t relegated to my role as a therapist. We can experience this in our families, friendships, marriages, and in our relationship with God.

The last example might be surprising. One of the reasons I enjoy reading the Gospels is because I see how Jesus interacted with people. And one of the examples I see repeat itself over and over is Jesus showing up as an empathic witness. I see him mirroring, validating, dignifying, connecting, and grieving with others.

Seeing God as an empathetic witness to the painful and confusing situations in our lives can help us see our faith and relationship with God as a safe place to land.

Regardless of the relationship, the most important way to cultivate safety is by leaning into the gift of empathy. And like Brené Brown says, “Empathy is a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling”

P.s. In my upcoming book, I dedicate one of the devotionals to this idea of God as our empathetic witness. If you want to read more, sign up for our email list and we’ll send you the free excerpt!

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