Are you Connecting?
Connecting with others is a great antidote to loneliness. However, while going to a party with a group of friends can seem like connecting, it often leaves you feeling even more lonely and disconnected. And on the other hand, going to the grocery store with no expectations and chatting with the check out clerk can leave you feeling energized and human again.
So, what’s going on?
When we use empathy, we really connect. We read the verbal and non-verbal signals someone is sending us and we understand. And they feel understood. What is happening is that mirror neurons are being triggered, letting us feel the feelings of others. We don’t usually feel their emotions in such full force, nor would we want to, but enough to understand what the other person is going through. This is the same principle as when we see someone drink a tall, cool drink and we start gasping for one. Or when partners of pregnant women feel the pains of labor. It also occurs when sports fans watch their team play and feel as if they’re playing themselves. Contagious yawns are a symptom of a healthy level of empathy.
Empathy is a valuable skill to have in all sorts of situations. Making connections on a personal level is important, as well as in business and social situations. We forgive more easily when we understand the roots of the behavior we don’t agree with. We also feel more trusting because other people don’t seem so random or chaotic. (You might even feel empathy for someone who disagrees with you on a political topic!)
When we’re preoccupied with our own anxieties, it can be difficult to empathize because it takes some outward focus to read the signals we’re being sent. Redirecting our focus to the faces (eyes in particular), body language, and words of the person in front of you, can not only create empathy but also reduce your own anxiety. Notice their breathing – is it shallow or deep? What does that mean to you?
When we empathize we’re more likely to feel compassion for the other. We might not agree with them on any level, but our feelings of alienation disappear. This is a great step towards self-compassion, if that is something you need to work on. One of the components of empathy is to notice our own feelings and reactions as we are focusing on the other person’s. This includes our emotions, thoughts and physical sensations. These are all clues to what the other person is feeling.
For example, someone is talking about an incident they just endured and you feel your jaw tighten – you notice and realize you’re feeling tense and your internal voice is getting loud… did the other person feel frustrated? It can be fun to put together this kind of puzzle and hone your skills at reading your friends. And then it is interesting to notice what we are communicating in return, with all our gestures and words.
Some people over empathize and take on too much of the other person’s feelings. You might want to avoid people or rescue them, when they’re hurting or angry. Maybe you feel over activated. You might think you can only be happy when people around you are happy, thereby being co-dependent. This is something to deal with in counseling as it can get in the way of leading your own life and keeping healthy boundaries.
If you would like to discuss this more with me, please call or email for an appointment.
Just for fun, click here for a quiz from the Greater Good Science Center to determine how empathetic you are.
(You don’t need to add your email address. And don’t worry about the last questions regarding your political views and income – that is just for their own statistics but won’t be used against you as it is anonymous.)