Knowing at a Cellular Level
Empathy can be defined loosely as the ability to identify the feelings of another and use that information to guide a response. Sometimes I associate it to hearing the music not just the words someone is saying. Psychologists believe empathy is an essential skill that helps direct one’s thinking and action. It is a building block of one’s emotional intelligence and the good news is that with practice and attention, empathy grows and provides a person with the benefits of feeling more connected to others and less emotionally reactive. When we listen to others and inquire into what is really going on for them we are tapping into the roots of empathy.
Empathy not only has its roots in developmental stages of childhood, but amazing new research has shown that our brains contain neurons that make allows us to grasp the minds of others through feeling rather than thinking. These so called mirror neurons fire in the brain when an experience matches an experience we know and can predict. Thus, when we see someone in pain our brain has a map of the feelings associated with someone else’s pain or humiliation because we have felt the same. These neurons help in understanding the development of social emotions. We are hardwired to be connected with each other and our brains are a collection of cells and chemicals that respond and create more connections when we are interacting, depending on others, receiving support and celebrating life and having our emotions reflected and accepted, or challenged by others. When we are not tuned in to the larger perspective, taking into account what might have brought on the behavior that is figuratively, driving us out of our minds, we can get into a mindset that is hardened or hopeless and our brains respond with a flood of chemicals that drive a process of reactivity sometimes with very negative consequences.
Becoming more aware of what is happening to us as we go through our daily experiences is a psychological process that therapy can promote. A therapist is trained to work empathically with clients and therapeutic support comes in the form a well tuned instrument of listening. An empathic response to a client may not just consist of a soothing response. It may point to a reaction unknown to them that supports their belief that they shouldn’t feel a certain way. For example, hearing the pain in a client’s description of a failed date despite her “laughing it off” may prompt me to notice the discrepancy between what she is saying and what I am feeling for her. Bringing her attention to this, by asking if it elicits other feelings opens the door to a more authentic dialogue about what others expect of her and how she would be considered weak if she acknowledged her pain. At those moments in therapy it seems the words and the music play together.