Family Works

Speaking on empathy

Rob Coombs ID. Min. Ph.D.
Posted 2/11/18

At the end of a long, hard, demanding day, most of us reach home with still more than enough to do. There is the evening meal to fix, children who want our undivided attention, a pile of laundry that …

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Family Works

Speaking on empathy

Posted

At the end of a long, hard, demanding day, most of us reach home with still more than enough to do. There is the evening meal to fix, children who want our undivided attention, a pile of laundry that absolutely must be done tonight, bills to pay, a checkbook to balance, plus that project that keeps getting put off for yet another day or week or month. Feeling overwhelmed and stretched to the limit, your spouse may offer little reprieve, as she or he is probably similarly exhausted, and can offer little comfort.

The grinding demands of life can leave us so strained that there is little energy left to invest in understanding yourself, much less your spouse and your children. For many, it’s a major accomplishment to just make it through another day. Especially in unhappy families, family members go through these daily struggles alone, and although they may occasionally vent frustration and anger they remain emotionally cut off from what they need most – kindness, understanding, and compassion. Because of this, it’s easy to develop a reservoir of feeling that you no longer believe that anyone cares enough to understand. The persistent pressure of these private feelings exerts a strong impact upon you. Over time, you may find yourself increasingly isolated, both from yourself and those you love.

For most of us there is little we can do about the many demands of our life. Like it or not, most of the demands we experience daily are here to stay. Even when our life changes and we go through developmental milestones such as our children starting elementary school or graduating from high school; winning a promotion; or even retiring, every new stage may relieve known demands but they are quickly replaced by new, unknown demands. 

What can change and must change, to make life not only more manageable but also more enjoyable, is sharing the experience of life with someone you love. Shared experience is the first step toward mutual understanding that makes empathy a possibility.

Although sharing an experience may not actually change anything in your life, you are more likely to feel better, partly because sharing means you are not experiencing life alone and partly because sharing helps you to regulate your feelings. Unhappy feelings don’t just go away if we talk about them, but it’s impossible to overestimate the soothing effect of talking over the upsets and questions of the day with someone who cares enough to listen. 

How do you foster empathy between yourself and the people you love? Some believe that you must learn to listen while the other person talks and then he or she is supposed to listen while you talk. This may help a little, but mostly all this teaches is taking turns.

Empathy does start with listening, but it doesn’t end there. Empathy has as much to do with understanding as it does with either listening or talking. Once we feel truly understood, we feel better, even if nothing has really changed about our circumstances. This is because empathy makes even miserable circumstances more bearable.
 
Are you understanding? Are you understood? What a difference empathy can make.

Rob Coombs is a professor with a doctor of ministry degree and a doctor of philosophy with an emphasis in Family Systems.

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