Mental health is a serious and persistent issue in our schools and our profession. The toll of multiple pressures and accumulated experiences from the past few years has left a heavy burden on our sense of well-being, our attitudes toward life and each other, and even our physical health.
We hear a lot about the importance of self-care, finding balance, and “taking the long view.” While good advice, such urgings can fall short of countering the emotional burdens we carry. We often need more support than we can manage on our own.
Fortunately, there is a powerful counterforce to the feelings of frustration, isolation, and loneliness that threaten to sap our energy, dissipate our motivation, and undermine our commitment. That connecting, energizing, and reassuring force is the presence and practice of empathy.
Empathy, of course, is different from sympathy. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone’s circumstance or having someone feel sorry for us. Sympathy is not a strong connector. Empathy, on the other hand, involves understanding and sharing the experiences, perceptions, and feelings of others. Empathy builds an emotional and cognitive connection.
Empathy also offers mutual benefits. The person who is experiencing empathy from others feels supported, understood, and cared for. At the same time, the person who is extending empathy experiences the benefits of connecting with and helping others. When people feel connected, understood, and respected, they are more likely to be motivated and emotionally healthy. Let’s explore six additional ways in which empathy can support our mental health.
First, empathy builds trust. It allows us to be authentic and transparent. Empathy seeks understanding, not confirmation of our predispositions, and can reveal the positive intentions of others while dispelling suspicions and negative assumptions about others’ motivations and actions.
Second, empathy helps to form and maintain relationships. It builds a sense of connectedness and understanding and nurtures feelings of belonging. Empathy can carry relationships through tough times, even when we may be caught in conflict and disagreement.
Third, empathy reduces levels of anger and frustration. By being empathetic, we can see and value the perspectives of others. Empathy can replace hostility with understanding, and it can counter the toll that chronic anger takes on our mental health.
Fourth, empathy can help us to discover solutions to challenges and conflicts. The quality of being empathetic supports communication that is more open and creative. Empathy opens doors to mutual understanding; solutions can emerge naturally from open, honest, and respectful exploration.
Fifth, empathy can help us to become more resilient. As we understand the experiences and perspectives of others, we can become more aware of and better able to regulate our own emotions. The experiences of others also can be an inspiration and lead us to higher levels of courage and determination.
Sixth, practicing empathy with others can support us to be more self-empathetic. We can be exceedingly hard on ourselves, especially during times of challenges and stress. When we consistently extend empathy to others, it can become easier to pause, reflect, and build self-understanding. It can even lead us to forgive ourselves when we otherwise may become trapped in guilt.
Of course, we need to recognize that there are limits to the depth and breadth of the empathy we extend. At times, we may need to set limits to avoid becoming overly immersed in the emotions and struggles of others. Like any behavior, too much of a good thing can diminish its benefits and counter its contributions to our health and success. Empathy is no exception, but practicing it wisely can be its own form of mental-health protection.