The Power of Empathy

September 2018

Judith Orloff, M.D.

Judith Orloff, M.D.

Judith Orloff, M.D., is on the clinical faculty at UCLA and is the New York Times best-selling author of The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People upon which this article is based. Learn more at drjudithorloff.com.

As a physician and empathic healer, patients frequently come to me longing for better relationships. They want more harmony, ease, and communication with others, yet anger, resentments, and frustrations often get in their way. Or, like many people, they get stuck in the need to be right, which brings communication to a standstill. One of the biggest challenges that human beings face, both personally and globally, is simply learning how to get along.

Empathy provides a powerful solution for reaching even difficult people. It is key to compassionate communication and melts barriers that stop us from loving. His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, “Empathy is the most precious of human qualities.”

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, even if you don’t agree with their viewpoint. With empathy you can feel someone else’s pain or joy. You can understand how he or she is feeling. Why will that serve us? Empathy takes us to a higher place. It allows us to see the similarities and humanness in others rather than letting differences divide us or making loved ones into the enemy. When you’re coming from a heart-centered feeling of empathy, rather than judgment or anger, others will become more receptive and less rigid in their views. Then it’s much easier to find compromises and to get along with each other.

A BRIDGE TO THE HEART

On a basic emotional level, all of us want to feel safe, seen, heard, and not judged. Empathy allows you to find a tender place in your heart that wants to make a bridge to the hear t of another, an impulse that can bring healing. For instance, you can lovingly say to your spouse, “I hear how painful it is for you to talk to your sister” rather than express with irritation, “I don’t see why you don’t want your sister to visit us. She’s not that bad.”

The message of empathy is always, I hear you, even if you don’t agree with someone’s reasoning. These magic words are the first step in making others feel safe. However, being empathic doesn’t mean that you are a doormat or tolerate hurtful behavior just to keep the peace in an unhealthy situation. Rather, once you see where someone is coming from, you can make the best decisions about a relationship. Empathy doesn’t always succeed in resolving differences, but it is the best chance we have of reaching a compromise and getting along.

A GIFT AND A CHALLENGE

I appreciate both the great gifts and challenges of being empathic. On the one hand, I want to deeply connect to my patients and loved ones but, as an empath, I can become an emotional sponge who absorbs the stress of others and the world. I quickly tend to get overwhelmed, irritable, or exhausted when too much is coming in too fast. At these times, I try to avoid having important conversations with people because they will never work out well. I’m too easily triggered. I’ll say something I regret. I’ll get impatient. However, when I’m centered, I’m a much more caring and skilled communicator.

If I feel overwhelmed or tired I try to put my relationships on pause so I can practice self-care. At the very least, I take a three-minute minibreak to meditate and reconnect with my heart and spirit. Short breaks can work wonders to center yourself, especially if you plan them regularly throughout the day. As part of my ongoing self-care as an empath, I also try to take longer periods for alone time and to meditate. I go out in nature. I take long, luxurious baths. I pray for inner peacefulness. I breathe deeply. Like many of us, it’s much easier for me to empathize with people and get along with them when I’m energized and centered.

What else stands in the way of our getting along? The main culprits include stubbornness, ego, the need to be right, holding on to resentments, and being unwilling to compromise. In addition, raising too many issues at once, rather than sticking to one topic, can frustrate others because there’s too much to deal with.

TAKE A DEEP BREATH AND PRAY

Prayer is an invaluable tool to stay calm. Whenever I notice myself becoming inflexible or lacking empathy, I take a deep breath and pray: Please keep my heart open so we both can hear and respect each other. Or, Please lift my frustration so I can be patient. These “flare prayers” are quick and effective in shifting us out of attitudes that sabotage successful communication.

Let’s pledge to bestow compassion and empathy on ourselves and others. There may be seemingly “good reasons” to stay mad at someone you love or to nurse old hurts with people. Even so, I’m suggesting that you try to rise above your small self and into your heart so that you can view all situations with more spaciousness and empathy. Then you won’t miss out on keeping a friend or feeling the comfort of a long-term love relationship.

Choosing empathy over anger and fear generates a profound shift in consciousness in all our relationships. It also catalyzes a compassionate evolution of humankind and a hope for us getting along in deeper, more meaningful ways, as individuals and as a planet.