(THE THIRD OF A 4-PART SERIES FROM DR NICOLAS KIMAZ N.D.)
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has been responsible for sweeping changes and disruptions in nearly every aspect of daily life. Aside from the needs to shelter-in-place, stay indoors, work from home and remain informed to keep pace with ever-changing mandates and guidelines, we have other needs that we are expected to place on a back burner to be considered “nonessential”, but that back burner is overheating and our emotional limits are stretched. It’s easy to find ourselves overwhelmed by our resulting anxieties and at times feel like we are a ticking bomb ready to detonate if there isn’t some kind of relief.
A primary problem is that we are social animals but unfortunately, due to a situation far beyond our control, we have been deprived of our need to socialize with family, friends, and co-workers. Except for the miracle of telecommunications, devices like Skype and Zoom that enable us to at least stay in touch digitally with others, through no fault of our own we aren’t permitted within 6 feet of another human while wearing masks, much less enjoy the hugs we normally rely upon from loved ones. Having been deprived of any tactile connection with anyone outside our home, we find ourselves in a state of detox from our fundamental need for physical contact, leaving us feeling like we are at our emotional and mental rope’s end.
What is so important for us to remember, however, that as isolated as we feel, we are not alone in this plight. As the signs say, “We are in this together”. And that means that whatever you are feeling, everyone else is feeling as well. We can all have the tendency to surrender to our misery, get sucked into the whirlpool of anger and frustration and throw emotional tantrums, which only serves to exacerbate the problem rather than remedy it. On the other hand, we can CHOOSE to be part of the solution, rather than the problem, not only for ourselves but for everyone in our lives. How do we do that? Practicing empathy.
This is the third of a 4-part series dealing with surviving the extreme challenges that have beset you. The previous keys were SELF-AWARENESS and SELF-MANAGEMENT. EMPATHY is the third key to surviving self-quarantine, and the fourth is SOCIAL SKILLS, all of which serve as tools to keep your emotional and mental apparatus functioning as they should.
You are no doubt familiar with the word “empathy” having heard it all your life, but it’s a term that is not only easy to overuse but also to take for granted. It’s so easy to say, “Oh sure, we have empathy” as we hear the data about the global devastation. It reminds me of something I once heard someone say, “The problem with the country is apathy, but who cares?” That’s not unlike our cavalier attitude about empathy – we can say we have plenty of empathy, but do we really care? And what difference would it make if I did have more? As another element of the code to The 4Wisdoms, I am attempting to address that very issue with what follows, so please keep reading.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.”(James 1:5)
First, let’s take a look at the real meaning of empathy. Webster’s defines empathy as, “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” Okay, perhaps that technical definition doesn’t get us much closer to the practical application of empathy as it relates to us, so let’s break it down a little more.
Psychologists who specialize in emotional research would proffer that empathy is “the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.” On the other hand, a PhD research professor at University of Houston has been quoted as saying, “Empathy is communicating that incredible healing message of ‘You’re not alone.'”
“You are not alone.” We can all relate to that in these troubling times and is a topic The 4Wisdoms is impassioned about, especially because empathy is so integral to emotional intelligence (EQ which we discussed In the SELF AWARENESS blog), being compassionate, and connecting with the people you love and work with.
Empathy is not to be confused with sympathy and compassion although the three words are often used interchangeably. While these words are closely related, they are not totally synonymous with one another. To clear up any confusion you might have:
- Empathy means that you feel what a person is feeling.
- Cognitive means you can understand what the person is feeling.
- Compassion is the willingness to relieve the suffering of another.
Simply put, compassion is an emotional response to sympathy (which is cognitive in nature) and creates a desire to help. Empathy is our feeling of awareness towards other people’s emotions and an attempt to understand how they feel.
You might wonder why this is important to know. It is a well-known axiom that “Knowledge is power.” The 4Wisdoms goes one step further offering that “Wisdom WITH knowledge is power.” During this crisis, knowledge is more crucial to you than ever before, but not so much about the body count, but knowledge about yourself and the wisdom how best to play the hand that has been dealt you. Make no mistake, empathy IS important, a must-learn skill that brings more ease and understanding to your life and relationships, but are you familiar with all three kinds of empathy and how to express them?
So here’s the deal: the more knowledge AND wisdom you have about all three are going to determine the type of empathy that you express or experience which in great measure determines how you weather this storm, emerging a victor and not a victim. What is important for you to know, not only about yourself but about others, is that Cognitive, Emotional and Compassionate empathy all manifest in different ways. Being aware of the difference, this knowledge becomes a skill that delivers more peace and well-being to your life and all your relationships.
It would be beneficial to do a Personal Inventory to determine if you respond in any kind of crisis with empathy and if so, what kind. Or do you just react when someone comes to you with another problem, which they will, of course, before we see the end of this insanity. For example, how do you respond when your partner comes to you expressing fear and outrage when her company has closed its doors, especially daunting when you aren’t sure either about your professional future? And on top of that, the mortgage payments are overdue? And you’ve just received news that someone else close to you has tested positive for the virus! We’d like to think we would always respond thoughtfully and empathetically, and perhaps you do, but the thing is, not all empathy looks and feels the same, just like not all sadness is the same; or happiness; or fear. So, let’s quickly review the three forms of empathy so you can best determine how each relates to you.
Cognitive Empathy involves thought and intellect, simply knowing how another person feels; it is as much about thought as it is emotion. It is defined by knowing, understanding, or comprehending on an intellectual rather than emotional level. Cognitive empathy responds to a problem mentally rather than emotionally. This type of empathy can be a huge asset in circumstances where you need to “get inside another person’s head” or interact with tact and understanding. But to truly understand another person’s feelings, doesn’t it make sense you have to be able to feel what they are feeling yourself? Those who react with Cognitive Empathy risk seeming cold or detached.
Emotional Empathy, like Cognitive Empathy, has its flip side. Just as the term implies, Emotional Empathy is reacting emotionally to what another person is feeling but the downside of emotional empathy is the potential to lack the ability to manage one’s own distressing emotions.
In other words, feeling too much can make even small interactions overwhelming.Even the Bible cautions us about being emotionally out of control. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)
To further explain how this happens, all animals, including humans, have neurons (nerve cells that receive and send electrical signals over long distances within the body) that fire in a certain way when they see another animal gesturing or behaving, prompting them to relate to that action in their own body and brain. Expressing emotional empathy is to react exactly in that manner with the shared feelings someone is experiencing. For example, when someone you care a lot about comes to you in tears, if you are expressing with emotional empathy, it’s a natural response to feel an automatic tug on your heartstrings, an intimate form of connection.
Compassionate Empathy is taking the middle ground and using your emotional intelligence to correctly respond to any given situation with a healthy mixture of Intellect, emotion, and action. The majority of the time, expressing yourself with Compassionate Empathy is the ideal response since it strikes a powerful balance of cognitive and emotional empathy. However, most of us tend to skew to one side or the other: more thinking or more feeling; more fixing or more wallowing.
Feelings of the heart and thoughts of the brain are not necessarily opposites. In fact, they’re intricately connected which is what we call “emotional intelligence” or EQ. Compassionate Empathy honors that natural connection by balancing both the felt senses and intellectual reaction to the situation of another person. To best inventory what your empathic reactions tend to be, ask yourself if you know how to respond appropriately in various situations. When a loved one comes to you in tears, for example, the ideal response is to understand why the person is upset as well as wanting to help, if in no other way than providing comfort by letting the person know someone understands and cares. Granted, it’s challenging, especially when we are dealing with our own bouts of despair and stress! Will you sense if your partner just needs to be held? Does the situation call for quick action? Without either becoming overwhelmed by sadness or trying to fix things with logistics, compassion brings a mindful touch to tough situations.
“It has changed my life and can change yours too absolutely. It doesn’t matter what’s going on with you … despite the scope and scale of your problems, there are solutions in Christ’s wisdom.”
Dr. Nicolas Kimaz, N.D.
(from his book, The 4 Wisdoms/Indoctrination)
So, what’s the bottom line? It’s an understatement to say that emotions are running high these days, but it’s important to understand that it’s creating the need for expression of empathy and compassion more than ever! In other words, practicing compassionate empathy is always important, but never more so than right now during the COVID-19 pandemic. When we are practicing social distancing, self-isolation, and quarantine, it’s all too easy to turn inward and focus solely on one’s self or one’s family unit. But research suggests that caring about others is one of the best ways to fight feelings of isolation.
It is timely to remind ourselves of what Jesus Himself had to say about how we care for and do for others who are less fortunate. “Truly I say unto you, to the extent you did it [helped] to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.” (Matthew 25:40)
Opening your heart and mind to finding ways to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem is not only biblical, but it will also open your mind to what others are experiencing, and it can also provide that much-needed feeling of social connectedness. Unfortunately, our emotions are one of the most difficult things to navigate during a crisis like this, in ourselves and our relationships. Expressing empathy is something most of us think we know how to do, but are our efforts falling short? Do you sometimes feel clueless when it comes to handling another person’s emotions? These are questions you are challenged to ask yourself. While you may be keeping your physical distance from others to prevent the spread of the virus, it doesn’t mean you need to be emotionally distant.
Take every opportunity to inventory some of the ways that the pandemic has impacted your life and how it has affected you. How are you dealing with working from home or being on paid leave? Are you aware of how you have been responding to your kids being home due to school closures? Have you been stressed about having plenty of food and paper goods available?
Now think about how others might answer those same questions depending on their situations and circumstances. Many people have lost their jobs and are out of work, others have no choice but to continue working and are worried about how to find childcare. And many may be struggling to find or pay for basic necessities.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to be quick to criticize how others react in a time of crisis, particularly those who don’t seem to be taking the situation seriously, without making the effort to understand how their situation and experiences are impacting their choices. Remind yourself that everyone copes differently. Empathy and understanding are a critical part of compassion and, more importantly, how you respond. Think of others and instead of finding fault or criticizing, look for ways that you can help as so many others are doing.
“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2
Responding to the situations of others with compassionate empathy not only boosts your social connectedness but it also improves your ability to regulate your own emotions during times of stress. Feeling empathy allows you to better manage the anxiety you are experiencing without feeling overwhelmed.
In closing I would just affirm that sometimes the world can look so daunting that it is hard to know where to start to practice compassion and empathy. It is times like this when the words of the late Mr. Rogers ring true: “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”— Therein lies a major key in your surviving this pandemic – how you respond. No act of kindness, compassion and empathy is too simple, no moment too small, to bring comfort and healing to others who are hurting just as much as you are. Providing empathy, kindness and compassion to our loved ones, co-workers and fellow citizens is the single most important factor in not only surviving the challenges of our self- quarantine, but also on a broader scale limiting suffering, protecting the vulnerable, and quickly recovering in the aftermath of the crisis. Now is a prime opportunity for us to be the heroes in our own stories.
Dr. Nicolas Kimaz, N.D.
Do you have secret dreams that you hold deep inside of you that you don’t share in case someone thinks they are silly? Or are you too scared to follow your dreams because you fear that you may fail?
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Dr. Nicolas Kimaz N.D. a Naturopathic Doctor, a Bible teacher, an author, a motivational speaker and spiritual guide for leaders
Dr. Kimaz may be contacted through Nicolas@4wisdoms.com. Your comments are welcomed.