Empathy is the capacity to identify the feelings of another person - to feel and try to understand someone else’s emotional state. “ A spontaneous and natural tuning into the other person’s thoughts and feelings, whatever they might be” (Simon Baron Cohen, 2004).
When a small baby cries, we might feel their distress inside our own bodies as a response. What we then need is the self-awareness to notice that the distress we are feeling is the baby’s and not originally our own. We also need our own strategies to regulate our bodies and to recognise the signal we have received from the baby so that we can get alongside, show that we are trying to understand this other person’s feeling and need. Whatever the age of the person - baby, young child, teenager, adult - this requires our full attention. It also requires us to show that we are trying to understand through our facial expressions and our body language. Experiencing empathy is at the root of feeling heard, valued, accepted. It is a crucial part of our relationships.
As humans, we are designed as social beings and yet we are not born with these skills fully developed. We are however born with the potential and the motivation to grow into sophisticated social and relational creatures. What we need is the safe, responsive care of adults who are attuned to us. If our own childhood has not included a “good enough” experience of empathy from a responsive adult, we may well find it difficult to regulate emotions in our bodies. This might make it very hard for us to bear our own difficult feelings, never mind those of others.
We might be left feeling that the expression of difficulty in others is a direct attack on us, or we might be tempted to move quickly away from the difficult feelings of others to suggest a “solution” to try to “fix” the problem. However well-meaning we might be in our attempts to give advice, if we haven’t taken the time to connect first, to get alongside the feeling, to give it our full attention, showing in our facial expression and body language that we are focused on trying to understand it from the other person’s emotional point of view, then our efforts at being empathic are unlikely to be received as such. Challenging behaviour is often an expression of a challenging feeling; empathy is an indication that the feeling has been heard/understood. The challenging behaviour will then often subside.
Empathy is the most generous and the most crucial part of human connection and to give it, we need first to have received it. It is never too early and never too late to get alongside another person and offer to share their burden, to understand how they are feeling.
Mary Taylor, Head of Programmes, Family Links the Centre for Emotional Health