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 Blooming Stars

Deepening in Empathy

            It is difficult to define empathy accurately. Yet it is generally understood as placing oneself in another person’s emotional and cognitive framework: the capacity to recognize emotions and thoughts as experienced by another; discerning what another person is thinking or feeling. There is affective and cognitive empathy depending on one’s capacity to respond with an appropriate emotion or to understand another’s perspective. Empathy is different from sympathy. I have written about empathy; I have trained counselors and psychotherapists in empathy. Yet after many years of practicing empathy, I feel I still need to deepen in empathy. The case in point is an intense sharing and analysis in a group setting.

            I thought I was helpful in analyzing certain words such as “strange”, “abnormal” used by someone, who is emotionally very close to me, to describe a certain statement not well thought out by another person in the group who had difficulty identifying feelings and thoughts, and expressing them assertively. Incidentally the person’s “light-hearted” - “silly” as later labeled by the one who made it - statement related to rescuing a cat before me in a dangerous situation. My effort in clarifying interactions among persons by suggesting to describe the emotional impact that words and statements could have on persons, and to stay away from general “loaded” and “categorizing” words really back-fired on me. I must also say my sequencing of analysis of sympathies, whether affective or cognitive, or affective or cognitive disconnect could have saved the day or at least avoided some unnecessary hurts. That all in the group were good-intentioned, loving, and caring did not help the matter any.

            What lessons we can learn from this encounter group? Any group experience can teach us valuable lessons. There will always be obvious risks, pains, and hurts that we will have to pay as the price or fee for growing. Certain hurts can be avoided by careful interventions and skillful maneuverings. What I learnt from the above group experience was that I could still go deeper in empathy. I started writing a letter parsing words and justifying my intervention to my friend and colleague who is deeply concerned about my emotional welfare, and who was very hurt by my intervention.

            Soon I became aware or rather broke into an insight that I needed to discard my earlier letter and write a new letter from my friend’s cognitive and affective perspective in order to heal the hurts that he felt. This letter worked marvelously to repair the damage. Because all that mattered was love, and there was plenty of love to go around in the midst of hurts. I am reminded of St. Paul’s words: “Love covers a multitude of sins”. Love goes beyond words. Personally, I am examining all my close relationships that require greater clarity in deeper empathy. It is not that I know and love them that matters. What really matters is that they know that I understand and love them. This deep love and understanding can happen only in deep empathy.

 

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