What is empathy? It is a key life skill and, when used, is amazingly powerful. The dictionary definition of the word empathy is: “The ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in their situation.”
It is hardly surprising that many people have little awareness of empathy. It is a life skill that is not taught in school or college and is often lacking if a person did not learn it from their parents. It has never been a part of formal education. However, the good news is that it can be learnt.
When used correctly, empathy, like genuine praise or compassion, is immensely powerful and affirming for the recipient. It demonstrates understanding of the other person’s genuine concerns and aspirations. It shows care and support, and motivates people through difficult or uncertain times (particularly apt in the current economic climate)
Do not confuse empathy with “sympathy”, which involves whipping out a tissue when someone starts to cry, or comforting them when they are upset. Men, in particular, are scared of developing empathy skills in case it makes them look weak, and this, in turn, makes it more difficult for them to manage and interact with their others. The beauty of empathy is that it can be combined with a strong attitude to Life by engendering happiness and enthusiasm.
Top 10 tips to be more empathetic.
So, how does one learn empathy? The basis of empathy lies in good listening and good communication.
1. Give your full attention to someone and use your body language. For example, mirror theirs to show them that you are there with them and for them.
2. Having listened to what they have to say, synthesise their experience and reflect it back to them verbally, ideally using their own words: “So, you are feeling…”
3. Even if you believe from your map of the world that they are pathetic, try to see things through their eyes and from their map of the world.
4. Don’t judge, criticise, mock or blame them or use inappropriate humour such as sarcasm. This is the worst thing that you could do, especially if they are going through a difficult time.
5. Learn a wide range of adjectives, especially for feelings, so that you can better empathise, rather than using generic descriptors like ‘how awful’ or ‘how terrible’.
6. Practise using different ways of showing empathy, both verbally (like saying “that sounds really…”) and kinaesthetically (such as by touching their arm), remembering that different people will respond to different approaches.
7. Pair up with a friend, look at and absorb a picture and jot down notes. Next, follow them around, matching their movements and body language. Then look at the same picture again. This exercise will enable you to see the picture differently through their eyes.
8. Notice how good you feel when someone is empathetic to you. What do they say and how do they say it that makes it powerful?
9. Ensure that you are being empathetic rather than sympathetic, as the latter can come across as condescending when used in the wrong context (such as “you poor thing”).
10. Source neuro-linguistic programming tools (such as the Meta Mirror) which enable you to stand in other people’s shoes and look at things through their eyes.
Empathy is a wonderful skill that is very affirming to the recipient. Being understood and thought about is like oxygen. Acknowledging people, whether via empathy, feedback or praise, is all too often lacking in our lives: it costs nothing and gives so much.
My last attempt at suicide perplexes me to this day. I was living on my own in a lovely rented property. I was completely sober. I suddenly had a down and decided that I would hang myself. I just wanted to escape the world. I succeeded in putting an electric cable around an old rafter. After a few knee bends I felt dizzy and spaced out. I was then able to kick the stool I was standing on away. I blacked out. I then came to on the floor. The cable had snapped. It was a very strong cable and I was amazed. Once again it seemed that Fate, or the Universe or God (whatever you like to call it) had intervened.
I had a sore back and a very sore neck for days afterwards. I made an appointment to see my psychiatrist and we talked about the incident. He confirmed what I thought deeply, mainly that I was pleased to be alive. Why did I do it? I think I was trying to prove to myself that I was in total control of my life i.e. whether I lived or died. That’s why I had not used alcohol. I felt empowered but also pleased that I had not succeeded. I have made no more attempts since then. That was about eight years ago.
Suicide is a strange business. I have been lucky. I have not had any suicidal thoughts for years. Partially this is because I have become much more mindful of my movements and depressive thoughts. I have also met a wonderful woman whom I am now living with. She understands me and I can confide in her when I am feeling low. I believe that she comprehends my mood swings and my depressive tendencies and that is a great comfort to me.
I also think now that I am 61 it really is time to just let nature take its course!
I cannot say with certainty that I will not have suicidal thoughts again. They come upon me very suddenly.
However, I would not want to hurt my current partner by exiting this world in such a dreadful way. I also do not want to hurt my children who, thankfully, shown no signs of depression.
I remember reading once that a psychiatrist said that suicide is “ a long term solution to what is usually a short term problem”. I find that humorous, and that appeals to me, but it also makes a lot of sense.
There is so much to enjoy about life and whilst some days I find it hard to enjoy even the simplest pleasures on other days I really am happy to be alive.
I also feel that I have a calling. The suicide of our ancestors removes a cultural taboo. It becomes acceptable to take one’s life in such a way. Also, the suicide of ancestors teaches one that the way to solve a crisis, or deal with unhappiness, is simply to take one’s life. I really do not believe that is right, but that is the subliminal message. My calling is to stop this suicide running down the generations. Suicide is like an insidious genealogical poison. Someone has to stand up and make themselves into an indestructible dam so that future generations are not subject to it. That is part of the reason I am alive for I really do not want my descendants to suffer the trauma and anguish of my suicide. I do not want my partner to suffer that. Those are powerful positive drivers.
The mind is a strange and complex thing. I find that it is necessary to be aware of the workings of my mind almost from minute to minute. It is odd how a minor perceived slight can throw me into a depressed state and ultimately a suicidal one. Dr Jenner touches on this in his blog: “Depression Research Update”.
Only this week I received a slight from a good friend which has affected my mood for three days. However, using my CBT techniques I have been able to deal with it. That is the level of mindfulness one needs when one is a depressive. I know full well that my friend would be horrified if she knew that what she had said had tipped me towards a depressive episode. She is a lovely person and I am sure that we will remain good friends. I remember the (alleged) final words of the Buddha: “Do good, refrain from doing evil, and strive on heedfully”. I think the last phrase of that was an exhortation to remain aware of how our minds twist and turn, so hard to control.
I cannot give advice to others about this tragic subject. I am not qualified to. But I hope that, by sharing my experiences and thoughts with others, they may gain some insight and ideas. I would say to anyone contemplating suicide or to friends of such, seek professional help without delay. The consequences of suicide (apart from the obvious) are terrible. Friends and family are shattered and they have to live with such a tragedy for the rest of their lives.
Both my grandfathers committed suicide. I have no memories of them. My father committed suicide when I was five, my mother when I was 16.
If there is a suicide gene then I must have it. However, I doubt that there is. I think suicide might run in families, for psychological reasons, that is my personal experience. I am not an expert.
I first tried to take my own life when I was 15. I cannot really remember why. I know that sounds strange. My mother had been getting steadily more depressed and had already made several suicide attempts. She used barbiturates. I would find her unconscious and dial 999. I think that the pressure to look after her and the trauma of her attempts just made me feel one day that I had had enough and wanted out. I knew where she kept the barbiturates and I washed a lot of them down with a can of lager. My mother had gone out for the evening but by a quirk of fate she returned early and so it was then her turn to get me to hospital where my stomach was pumped out.
I never thought much about it and certainly did not analyse my motives. I went back to boarding school and that was where I received the news that my mother had taken her life. She did so on St Valentine’s Day 1968.
I think I must have gone into denial and just buried the whole thing. Counselling was not considered necessary in those days: certainly not in an English Public School. I had no close family to share my loss with. I was expected to carry on as normal with my school work and activities
I remember having mixed feelings: relief, despair, anger, guilt. It was better just to bury those. I determined to make my own way in the world, eventually becoming a solicitor and a Judge.
The second time I made an attempt on my life when I was when I was about 50. I had been miserable for years. I had set out to build a career and a family and I had succeeded but I felt no joy or happiness. My wife and I had drifted apart. My children were, and still are, lovely but I could feel no satisfaction from what I had achieved.
I married when I was 23. Things seemed easier then. There was a route map. Develop my career, have children, get a nice house and car. But I found during my late 40s that I was in a prison, metaphorically. I did not believe in divorce and yet I was living with a woman whom I no longer loved.
I did not know it but I was thinking irrationally. My wife went away for a weekend with a friend and I was in the house with my three children. I decided that I had to end everything there and then so I put a plastic bag over my head, got drunk on whisky and tied the bag around my neck with an elastic band. It took several attempts.
The feeling of the bag clinging to my face was horrible, even though I was drunk. Eventually however I passed out and the next thing I knew was that my eldest son, who was 14, had ripped the bag off my head. I don’t know what made him wake up, perhaps I screamed. We have never discussed it although I know we should. It must have been terribly traumatic for him.
My son called an ambulance (history repeating itself) and I ended up in a psychiatric clinic. It was lovely there. I had intensive psychoanalysis for six weeks and was at last able to begin to understand that I had suffered emotional abuse as a child and the psychoanalyst helped me to bring all the anger and hurt and painful memories out in the open where I could address them. It was not easy, I cried through most sessions. Gradually I was able to bring the anger and hurt out into a calm safe environment, and start to deal with them in a rational way.
I realised that I had to make significant changes in my life. I divorced my wife. It was hard, I did not want to hurt her but I realised that my primary duty of care was to myself. Fortunately the divorce was not acrimonious but I found myself living alone in rented accommodation. I carried on with counselling and found a very good CBT practitioner who was also a great help.
(To be continued…)
A scary subject – but one that Dr Jenner addresses full on and which shows forensic research. I can’t help thinking that if there were more “open” debates about this dreadful form of assault, it’s causes, and the situations in which it occurs, would be better understood by both men and women. I would earnestly hope that this, in turn, would lead to a reduction in the number of incidents.
Dr. Nicholas Jenner is a Counseling psychologist in private practice working with individuals, couples, groups and companies. Apart from seeing clients face-to-face, Dr Jenner also runs a thriving online therapy business bringing help to those who are housebound or located in rural locations where therapy is difficult to find. Online Therapy details : Here
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