Knowing the right ways to show empathy and compassion can serve as useful emotional tools for parents.
The definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, while compassion is described as sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others. Just because you are not going through something or feeling a certain way does not mean that you cannot empathize and show compassion toward others. Being open-minded to a pain you have never experienced first-hand is one of the most difficult things to do as you cannot draw on your own emotions or anecdotes. Instead, you have to listen attentively to what the person is going through before trying to understand how you would cope with such a situation.
The first question you should ask yourself is, what do they need from you? Sometimes they may simply want your help as they seek to solve a problem in their life. However, other times they may be looking for a pat on the back or a warm hug. It is important to differentiate between empathy and needing a solution early on in the process. If they are looking for empathy, then rattling off a long chain of advice to them will likely only make them feel frustrated and small. Similarly, if they are looking for advice and all you give them is a hug, they may feel isolated and alone. Therefore, you should always ask them outright — What do you need? Remember, every single person is different, so you should never make assumptions about their needs and feelings.
Let’s take a look at a couple of examples to demonstrate. If a loved one or friend is struggling with anxiety but tells you that they do not want to talk about it, that should be a clear cue for your empathetic response. While they have made it clear that they are not looking for advice on the matter, by opening up to you they are clearly in need of your empathy. In this case, you should simply be with them in the moment and make it known that they are not alone in their struggle. If they continue talking and you feel as though you should respond, repeat and reflect their feelings back to them. However, if they do not seem chatty, do not be afraid to sit in silence with them and simply exist in the issue together.
As a second example, let’s say that your brother is also struggling with anxiety and opens up to you about it. He ends his story with — “What do you think I should do?” Unlike in the previous example, he has actively asked for your advice here, meaning that he is looking more for a solution than empathy. If you have gone through a similar problem in your past, or know someone else who has, provide an anecdote and reveal how you/they got past the problem. If you have no knowledge of the subject, give your honest opinion regarding what you think he should do and how he can move past this anxiety. If you need to, take some time to research in order to add further value to the information that you are providing.
For someone you are close with, such as a loved one or a good friend, empathy often means being there for them in their moment of need. Whether that be a hug, spending the evening with them watching movies or taking a day trip — empathy is the art of understanding their pain and hold space with them while they are going through it. Sometimes, this can be an extremely difficult process as the person providing empathy to another. Your natural instincts may tell you to weigh in, comment on the issue and to offer advice. However, empathy is more about sitting with them in the moment, letting them talk and sometimes reflecting back what they said without adding anything. Let them know that they have been heard and understood.
Mindful breathing exercises can be very useful for someone who is going through anxiety issues as they have been biologically proven to help get a handle on the nervous system. The autonomic nervous system features a sympathetic side and a parasympathetic side and they work together in a complicated way. As the name suggests, the nervous system is automatic, meaning that you have no control over it. The only way to gain a little bit of control is through breathing exercises. Take regular and deep, seven- to eight-second breaths to help slow your heart rate and calm yourself down. Some people may find it hard to partake in breathing exercises alone, one act of empathy could be to sit down and do these exercises with them. Let them know that you are in this together.
In terms of compassion, there are a number of ways in which you can show compassion to those around you. Make sure to communicate both verbally and non-verbally. Eye contact and body language can often be just as important as the words you speak. Maintain eye contact, turn toward them, and nod along to show interest. Touch can also be a powerful compassionate tool, whether it be a hug or a pat on the back. Remember to always get consent first. Touch can be a great way to show that you care and it triggers positive reactions in the other person’s brain. In terms of verbal communication, repeat key pieces of information back to them for clarity and ask open-ended questions if you get the impression that they want to continue talking.
Empathy and compassion can be tricky things to provide, especially when they require you to hold your tongue. However, when mastered, they can become such useful tools when helping your loved ones through some of the toughest moments of their lives.
Anthony Cupo is a trained mindfulness facilitator (TMF) from the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. He is a co-owner of Stepping Forward Counseling Center, LLC and has been meditating for over 30 years.Our article is also published in ParentingOC’s Magazine!