Empathy – A Matter of Degrees

Empathy - A Matter of Degrees

I think of empathy as being able to connect to the thoughts and feelings of another when they are going through a challenging experience. When our understanding of their experience mirrors our own, it feels as though we have walked in their shoes. Empathy is a matter of degrees.

For example, my husband and I lost our baby girl near delivery. I went into labor and my doctor prescribed medication to stop the labor, thinking our baby was trying to arrive earlier than expected. Unfortunately she had already died a few days prior and my body was responding accordingly.

Recently on a Sunday we were invited to a gathering for friends who has just lost their baby boy. Their doctor had given her medication to stop labor as well. In the end, the baby was delivered and he lived for only an hour. As they talked to all present about the heartbreak and pain they gone through, my husband and I felt great empathy. It was like listening to our story. Our hearts went out to them deeply and brought up many old feelings for us, which we later discussed. You may say it was an energetic match.

With empathy and sympathy we acknowledged our friends emotional hardship. Since they understood we had gone through a very similar experience, our presence that day brought them some comfort. We told this sweet young couple that you never forget, but the pain does lessen over time. Both of their parents thanked us for those words. At this point I imagine the pain is still almost too much to bear. Although a few people we did not know were told that we had been through the same experience as this young couple, the empathy they felt for their friends was different by many degrees than it was for us. There was no emotional attachment to the loss we had sustained which meant there was no connection to our loss.

There are two basic types of empathy. One is born of common experience and the other is when you can feel what is going on in the moment, even if you have not gone through the experience.

What does empathy mean to you? Can you imagine walking in another person’s shoes? There are many people with parallel circumstances. Almost everyone has lost a family member or friend to cancer. You can connect to the loss of someone with cancer, but not to the feeling of having cancer, unless you have walked in those shoes.

Psychology says when something is too big, we do not have the ability to process it or connect to it. When the tsunami hit Indonesia a number of years ago, over a quarter of a million people were lost in a matter of hours. There is no way to connect our feelings to the vastness of this loss. It’s too big to process if we have not experienced a disaster on this scale ourselves. We care and can feel compassion, but it remains relatively surface level compared to the people involved who lost family, friends, pets, homes, business and more.

The depth of empathy felt for another, or a situation, can be likened to an equation which consists of proximity, relationship and experience. The degree to which one feels any percentage of the aforementioned points will determine our capacity to feel what another is feeling.

If your friends grandmother passes away and you did not know her, you would give your condolences. That might be as deep as it goes because you didn’t know her. Now, if you tell me your grandmother passed away and I had a deep connection with “Nanna” and I had lost my grandmother, I would be experiencing all three of the connection points in the equation and would be right there to meet you emotionally.

“Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.” – Mohsin Hamid

So, in the final analysis it all comes down to a matter of degrees. We feel deeply for that which we are personally connected to energetically and vibrationally. We are energy after all!