Some people are great listeners. They help us feel valued, are non-judgemental, and we nearly always come away feeling better after talking to them.
Empathy is the ability to understand how others feel and to be compassionate towards them. Research from neuroscience shows that empathy occurs when two regions of the brain, the emotional centre, and the cognitive centre, work together. The first perceives or experiences the emotion whilst the second seeks to put meaning to it.
There is an empathy spectrum and some people, like psychopaths, have extremely low empathy, whilst others can feel overwhelmed by their emotional connection to others.
Are You An Empath?
Science is divided on whether empaths really exist. Researchers have identified bundles of cells called mirror neurons which may mirror what other people are feeling. The higher concentration of these cells in some people could support the concept that empaths do exist.
The ability to identify strongly with others is both an advantage and a challenge. Many “empaths” go into the helping professions and become physicians, nurses, dentists, physical therapists, psychotherapists, social workers, teachers, and even clinical hypnotherapists.
When Empathy Hurts
Research shows that empathy makes us better managers, healthcare workers, family members, and friends. But we also need to remember that too much empathic exposure to distress can be painful and can lead to emotional burnout.
A new study published in Cerebral Cortex suggests that strengthening compassion skills helps people to cope better with the negative emotions of others.
Empaths, or highly empathetic individuals, in the helping professions can learn how to stop taking on the stress and symptoms of their patients and clients. They can do this by scheduling breaks between clients to meditate or practice self-hypnosis, set clear limits and boundaries with people, and take adequate time outside of work to relax and rejuvenate.
When time is scarce, self-hypnosis offers an excellent method of self-care. Just 20 minutes of regular practice helps to reconnect you with your unconscious mind and provides deeper insights into one’s emotions. Connecting in this way builds emotional resilience and provides a natural buffer and release for unwanted stress.
Hiding In Plain Sight
When society prioritises other things before emotional well-being, people learn to hide their feelings. We often hear praise for career advancement and big salaries, but we rarely recognise acts of kindness in the same way.
If boys are told not to cry and girls are told to behave, the consequences are an inevitable poor emotional resilience, a sense of guilt about who we really are, and a propensity towards low self-worth and anxiety disorders.
Many people hide their true emotions, put a brave face on, and get on with their tasks. And the more we dissociate from ourselves, the less we are able to relate to others.
Emotional engagement begins in the unconscious. People naturally respond to non-verbal cues, mirroring and matching facial expressions, responding to head nods, vocalizations, postures, movements, and the voice intonation of others.
Understanding what our feelings mean helps to develop emotional intelligence, and the more connected you are to your own emotions, the greater one’s ability to feel for others.
Being able to take on the perspective of someone else—a cognitive function—is also part of empathy. This is a learned ability. Children start to develop the ability around the age of 4, but it is never too late to expand this skill. Research shows that compassion training for adults can develop brain activation pathways to reflect responses comparable to experts who have meditated on compassion for years.
Moods can be contagious and the ability to regulate and modulate emotion is an important part of empathy and one which helps us to empathise with someone’s distress without losing ourselves to the experience.
Self-hypnosis offers an opportunity to release unwanted tensions and facilitate reconnection to one’s emotional senses. Clinical hypnosis utilises imagination so that you can experience what it is like to have a different perspective or to experience a different situation.
Learning to reconnect is rarely straightforward. But empathy can be reawakened. The first step is learning to relax and reconnect with your own emotions.
Of course, learning how to teach self-hypnosis to others can bring mutual benefits. Asking simple questions and listening to the answers helps create new outlooks and insights. Having the skill to lead someone into the state of hypnosis creates a safe and emotionally positive experience.
The next step is to create effective suggestions or words which can facilitate positive emotional responses in others, and which continue to touch the person long after the session has ended.
In the words of Maya Angelou “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”