I am more and more convinced that empathy is the key to healthy relationships. Empathy is why individual counseling and marriage therapy can be so effective. Your therapist is trained to listen to the voice of your heart and understand what’s at the root of your anxiety or depression, but also your hopes and dreams.
That’s what empathy is. An awareness and joining of your feelings. Too often we simply feel the feelings without seeking a deeper understanding of what they might mean. This is true for both our interpersonal relationships and our relationships with ourselves.
My favorite examination of empathy is through the eyes of a little boy. Consider this excerpt from my book The Relationship Alphabet:
One of my favorite books of all time is Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. On the surface, it’s your typical story of intergalactic warfare with a race of alien bugs. But it’s also a brilliant case study in empathy as demonstrated through the character of Ender Wiggin, a young boy with an unusual aptitude for battle strategy as well as an enormous capacity for compassion. Reflecting on the central conflict of the novel, Ender says:
In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.
There’s quite a bit going on here. Ender begins with an insight into conflict, and the reader expects to learn how he will achieve victory over his enemy. Victory, however, isn’t the goal. At least it’s not the only goal. Ender is chasing understanding, and that understanding leads to love. To have empathy is to understand somebody fully—what they want, what they believe. And not just in the moment, but in general.
Are you having trouble generating empathy for another, or for yourself? Consider counseling or spiritual direction at Sage Hill Counseling. Contact us today.
Zach Brittle is a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) in Seattle, WA where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He is a Certified Gottman Therapist and author of the Relationship Alphabet. Now available on Kindle for only $.99. Follow him on Facebook at Zach Brittle, LMHC or on Twitter @kzbrittle.