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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Hattemer

The Positive Power of Empathy

I have been learning much about the importance of a positive mindset on our health in general and on healthy brain function in particular. A relational experience I’ve had in the last several months has made this especially vivid to me.

I was having difficulty with a relationship with a family member. Another daughter described it as, “She has taken her position and won’t budge and you, Mom, have taken an opposite position and you won’t budge either. One of you must see things differently.”

As my daughter tried to help me understand the whole picture, we had many deep conversations, which I found helpful. As I contemplated the situation, I saw that my desire was not to be right, but to bring about reconciliation. My goal was to leave a legacy of harmonious family relationships, not severed relationships.

Trying to understand each other’s motivation in the struggle enabled me to change my thinking. I realized that she and her husband truly had my best interests at heart. I felt threatened by their attempts to help me, but at the same time, I realized I had attitudes that needed to be changed. As I prayed about the problem and asked God to show me what I needed to learn, I saw where I was off base. I needed to stop responding as a victim and to recognize that I tend to over react and dramatize a situation. I recognized the destructive nature of my tendency to rehash words that led to confrontations. That alone could make me sick. There must be no more acting like a victim. My desire became solely to put the offending confrontations behind me and to move forward. As the clutter that had filled my mind dissipated, I relaxed and began to feel renewed.

Having just gone through this process, I received an issue of Dr. Gary Small’s Mind Health Report entitled Empathy Enriches Our Lives. Dr. Small seeks to find cures for problems of the mind and prevent neurological diseases. He defines empathy as “the ability to imagine and understand what someone else is feeling.” He sees empathy as essential in bringing people together but he warns that the capacity to empathize is declining as our lives are filled with too much activity and too many technological distractions. College students are reporting lower levels of empathy. Many people today focus on messages pouring in from the latest box of technology rather than look you in the eye and identify with how you are feeling.

Research has found that young people who spend 11 hours or more a day using these gadgets demonstrate limited eye contact. They often fail to recognize the emotional content of a facial expression. And they miss nonverbal cues when they are talking to others. College students are themselves aware of these deficits because 75% of them rate themselves as less empathetic than college students did in the 1980s.

The loss of “bedside manner” by doctors today can leave patients confused and unhappy and likely not to follow their recommendations. Medical schools have recognized their need to teach empathy to their students because it enhances the healing of patients.

When man first learned to come together in groups to increase chances of survival in harsh environments, the frontal lobe of the “thinking” part of the brain increased. This allows us to experience how others are feeling to the point of experiencing their pleasure and pain. For instance, research has measured the pain of a married couple when one of them is pricked. The partner who watches, experiences almost identical pain. I recently had a very painful experience of skin scraping and burning in the dermatologist’s office. As I grimaced and writhed in obvious pain, my husband said he could feel my pain himself.

In like manner, Dr. Small’s research has found that “when we observe another person experiencing happiness, sadness, pain, embarrassment, or almost any emotion, it can activate the same neural networks in our own brains and cause us to feel the same emotion.” He describes this in everyday language as our brains being “there” for others. When our brain’s neural circuits work correctly, we can connect with others and experience love, intimacy, and attachment. When they malfunction, people begin to feel isolated from other people. Loneliness can be the result of lack of or low empathy skills. Humans need to feel that others understand what they are going through. Without the closeness that is triggered by empathy, we would feel solitary, lonely and misunderstood. On a positive note, Dr. Small explains that it is possible to increase your mind’s ability to empathize. This can lead to greater mental health for you as well as for others.

If a parent never learns to express his or her feelings openly, children do not develop the empathy skills to notice their parent’s nonverbal clues. When family members learn to talk openly about negative feelings like anger, guilt and resentment, they are better able to connect with each other and develop closer relationships.

Dr. Small states that three skills are essential for connecting with others:

1. Learn to listen by putting aside distractions, both external (email, text messaging, games) and internal (worries and thoughts) and focus attention on the other person.

2. Recognize how other people are feeling by studying their non-verbal communication. Communicate that you are there for them by making eye contact and touching them appropriately, like a reassuring hand on their shoulder.

3. Let others know you understand. Restate what you hear them saying to you. Ask for additional details.

Be encouraged as you try to increase your empathy skills by the fact that our brains are programmed to bring us together as social beings. A little effort on our part can both diminish the current trend toward greater isolation and improve our relationships with others. This can enhance both our mind health and our quality of life.

Except for the personal experiences included, all of the ideas detailed in this blog have been taken from Dr. Gary Small’s Mind Health Report, Vol.5, Issue 9 / September 2013: Learning to Care—Empathy Enriches Our Lives.

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