Empathy defines us as social animals, because we not only want to understand what others are feeling, we also have an inherent need for them to understand what we are going through.
When another person knows that we understand what they’re experiencing, that communication triggers a sense of closeness.
Without this closeness to others, our lives would be solitary and lonely. Loneliness often results from a lack of empathy skills.
Several years ago I had a patient named Florence, who took great pride in being a mother and homemaker. Her three teenagers were thriving and her husband was happy. She was a generous person who liked doing things for those she loved.
After Florence’s brother died, her family rallied around her and she was comforted by the support.
But after a few weeks, everyone else went on with their lives while Florence’s sense of loss and pain persisted. One afternoon, she found some pictures of her brother. She was so overcome with grief that she cried for hours.
Florence finally pulled herself together and made dinner. During the meal, no one noticed her red, swollen eyes or even realized that she seemed sad. After dinner, she cleaned the kitchen while the rest of the family watched TV, played video games, or did their homework.
Florence felt unappreciated and alone. When she walked through the garage to take out the garbage, she decided to sit in the car until somebody realized she was missing.
Two hours later, Florence marched into the den and cried, “I’ve been sitting in the car for two hours and no one even noticed!” She stormed to her bedroom and slammed the door.
The family was stunned. They had no idea how Florence had been feeling. They all rushed into her room to tell her how much they loved and appreciated her.
Florence began to go to therapy, and soon came to realize that she too played a role in the family’s lack of empathy. She had never learned to express her feelings openly, and her family hadn’t developed the empathy skills to notice her nonverbal cues.
Florence convinced her husband and kids to come in for family therapy sessions, which helped them understand that even though they may have seemed like a close-knit family, each of them felt somewhat alone.
I urged them to talk more openly about negative feelings such as anger, guilt, and resentment. They worked on connecting more to each other and helping Florence around the house. Talking about their feelings helped bring the family closer together, and cleaning up after dinner soon became a happy family routine.
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