Can Empathy Be Learned? "Am I Fighting a Losing Battle With My Husband Who Has Zero Empathy?" by Dr. Bethany Cook Clinical Psychologist
Q. "My husband has absolutely no empathy. I always try to explain what it is to him when situations arise, which is often. Can empathy be learned or is this a losing battle?"
A. Research has shown that empathy is not a trait humans are born with but it actually needs to be cultivated and taught. Different from sympathy (sharing or having the same feelings) empathy is about being able to “put yourself in someone else's shoes” without necessarily having had that specific experience or feeling.
The formal definition of empathy is: the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another.
Several psychological and neurological disorders hinder an individual's ability to learn and express empathy. Those are:
- antisocial and/or narcissistic personality disorder
- autism spectrum disorder
Even if your spouse does suffer from one of these disorders it is possible to teach empathy – if he has a desire to learn. The old saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is 100 percent about the dogs willingness to learn vs. his ability to learn.
Here are four steps you can use to teach empathy:
- First, it’s important to highlight the benefits of showing empathy (makes your connections to others deeper, more meaningful and fulfilling). Also, teach how to identify emotions in others (you can use a feelings chart with images of faces if needed), the importance of allowing those feelings inside and appropriate responses someone can say that are heard as supportive (i.e. “Sounds like you’re having a stressful day.”).
- The next step is to provide modeling of the behavior. We can’t always offer empathic responses to our spouse. What you can do is watch a video and talk about the people in the show and their feelings, listen to a story or read a book about someone else showing empathy.
- Once they’ve learned how to identify emotions in others and you’ve modeled (exposed them to) empathetic responses it’s time to practice. This can literally be role-playing short scenes where you both act out scenarios in which your spouse uses supportive language reflecting an empathic response. You could also practice this with a friend, professional/therapist. Just like with anything, the more you practice empathy the easier it is to do.
- Finally, it’s important for the person learning empathy to get feedback. Let them know that they’ve “done it right” when they do something that feels good to you. Be specific: “I felt seen and heard when you said ‘I understand’ to my comment instead of trying to problem solve.” Model empathy when offering constructive feedback.
Relationships are difficult even on the best of days. Good luck on your journey.
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