Empathy: The difference between carrying and caring

carryingEmpathy is a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing. Marshall Rosenberg

The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objective manner. Merriam Webster Online.

This thought of empathy came to me this week after reading an article someone had posted on Facebook about highly sensitive people. My understanding of the article was that highly sensitive people, or empathic people, can become overwhelmed by another person’s issues because they are so tuned into the emotions. From my experience with nonviolent communication the issue is more about carrying versus caring.

There is a big difference in the above two definitions regarding experiencing the others feelings. According to Marshall Rosenberg, empathy involves a respectful understanding of the others experience. This is exactly how I experience empathy when using nonviolent communication. I don’t usually feel the feelings they are experiencing, probably because I am focused on understanding completely what is going on for them. The way of understanding this in nonviolent communication is to identify the feelings and then try to understand the needs that are generating the feelings. When I am fully engaged in this process I “disappear” and meld with the other person. I am fully hearing and understanding what is going on for that person. I am also not thinking that I am responsible for the situation in any way, which means I’m not responsible for “fixing” them or making them “feel better”. After fully hearing them, if one of their needs is more understanding or support, I may ask if they want any suggestions, but the role of empathy is to just understand.

The concept of responsibility is very important in this process. If people think they have some sort of responsibility in the process of empathy they start to lose the ability to care and begin to carry. In other words, my belief that I’m responsible to “fix this” starts to drive my own needs. I no longer “disappear” because I have my own needs I’m trying to get met while listening to you. I am now “carrying” you, and things become complicated. I wonder if this is what’s happening to highly sensitive people that are becoming overwhelmed with another person’s emotions. I’m wondering if they are taking responsibility and trying to “carry” the other person. I believe empathy involves the ability to “disappear” which means I can’t have my own issues involved while providing empathy to you.

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