Among your friends, are you the go-to person for advice? Are you the great listener? Do you feel what others feel, understand what they think? If so, maybe you’ve wondered whether a counseling career would be a good fit for you or others have encouraged you to take the leap.
If you have the gift of empathy, then you’re more aware than most folks of just how many people are hurting emotionally and physically — almost everywhere you turn.
According to PLNU professor of psychology Don Welch, Ph.D., clinical counselors who empathize well help others to heal well. Research concurs: empathy is a remarkably powerful healing agent for the spirit, soul, and body.
What is Empathy?
Empathy is easy to spot. It’s the engine that drives us, and millions of others, to buy a movie ticket or boot up Netflix. We’re drawn to forget ourselves and experience the “agony and ecstasy” played out by others.
The reason we watch, though, isn’t simply to watch: we love to imagine ourselves actually being the actors. Our heart swells with Romeo’s confessions. We feel heartbreak hearing Darth Vader’s I am your father. We get Luke’s pain.
As a person familiar with empathy, stepping into the skin of others is as natural as breathing. You may not recognize that empathy is your strongest character trait — in daily life, not just at the movies. You might regularly lose awareness of yourself and identify with “the other,” whether that person is a hurting spouse or a frustrated mother in a checkout line.
Experiencing empathy may be one of the most rewarding experiences of your day. By empathizing, you’re no longer the armchair quarterback in the game of life: you’re down on the field with strangers and loved ones, running in their cleats, taking the hits, helping them get up, dust off, and stay in the game. Empathy makes you feel fully alive, fully present, as you meet others with understanding and compassion.
Living empathically may also be one of your most stressful habits. By the end of a week, you may have connected with others deeply, but you’ve lost touch with yourself and feel spent.
Empathy is a powerful skill. As with any powerful tool, though, you need training and practice to wield it well. Empathy can lead to wisdom and selflessness, or to chronic weariness. With sympathy, you can stand at a distance and take pity on the misfortunes of others. With empathy, that distance dissolves. You enter into others’ struggles — and that can take a toll.
Not surprisingly, empathy is a common gift among helping professionals, especially counselors. Counselors who empathize deeply bring deep healing to others; those who practice self-empathy help clients even more, and also maintain thriving counseling careers.
Empathy for Others — and Ourselves
Welch challenges his counseling students with this problem: “How do you avoid burnout while empathizing with clients session after session?”
His answer is found in the well-known commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.
According to Welch, “Empathy for others is the most important quality for successful therapists, but counselors must first have empathy for themselves.”
But self-empathy may seem vague and self-centered, especially if you’re used to focusing on others. What is self-empathy, exactly, and why is it so vital?
Self-empathy is a form of self-love with a unique focus. In self-love, you may admire your wise or loving personality. You feel good about your strong character, service work, or academic accomplishments. You may feel deep gratitude, even humility, for your blessings.
In self-empathy, you love and accept yourself, but not because of your strengths. You feel compassion for yourself in your weaknesses. You admit where you’ve been wounded and how you’ve hurt others. You embrace the hard truth that you have failed and lost. By facing the pain of your character defects and mistakes, you honor yourself.
Kristin Neff, Ph.D., author of Self-Compassion, has created a “Self-Compassion Scale,” a series of statements describing “how I act toward myself in difficult times” to rate how much self-empathy you experience. People who lack self-empathy may agree with such statements as, “I’m intolerant and impatient towards those aspects of my personality I don’t like,” or “I can be a bit cold-hearted towards myself when I’m experiencing suffering.”
With healthy self-empathy, you’re warm-hearted toward your shortcomings.
You love and accept yourself, warts and all. Ironically, as you admit rather than deny your discouragement and shame, you open yourself to receiving grace, forgiveness, and healing.
Compassion for yourself is not only essential for a healthy personal life, but it’s also the secret to a successful counseling practice. Unless you face your brokenness, you remain powerless to help others do the same.
Why is this true? As a naturally empathic person, you may feel others’ depression or confusion, but just shouldering burdens won’t solve problems. Empathy for others isn’t enough. First, you must dare to open your own heart to unconditional self-compassion. Only then are you empowered and equipped to teach others to do the same.
In short, if you face your own pain squarely, you can lead clients to and through their suffering without denial. First travel the road of empathy yourself, then invite others along. The road will not be wearisome, but invigorating and rewarding. You won’t close your counseling door each evening with a sigh but with excitement about the healing tomorrow holds.
Empathy and Practical Healing
In 2017, the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) found that an estimated 19.1% of U.S. adults had an anxiety disorder in that year alone and 31.1% of adults in the U.S. will experience this at some point in their lives.
According to Daniel Jenkins, Ph.D., director of PLNU’s Master of Arts in Clinical Counseling (MACC), 10 to 30 percent of Americans suffer from chronic or recurrent physical pain, and most sufferers have not found a lasting cure. Many who suffer from chronic or recurrent physical pain, Jenkins notes, have been told that “it’s all in their head.”
In addition, Jenkins adds, “They may feel helpless, anxiety-ridden, depressed, angry, frustrated, and out of control. They often turn to prescription pain medication, drugs, or alcohol for relief — only to find that these quick fixes can cause more complications and devastation in their lives than the original pain.”
Here is the good news: empathy for others and self-empathy are not only powerful catalysts for emotional healing but for physical healing as well. Research now shows that empathy can quite literally promote pain relief and robust physical health.
In the 1990s, neuroscientists began to document the impact of emotion on physical health. In her groundbreaking book, Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Connection, Candace Pert, Ph.D., examined the role of “neuropeptides” in physical health and immunity. Specifically, she studied “how our emotions act like drugs in the brain and body.”
As we experience negative emotions, for example, we trigger a chain reaction of these “information carriers” — neuropeptides — that course through the body. These act as signals to elevate the stress hormone cortisol.
Normally, our body produces cortisol only in times of danger or emergency. Chronic stress and long-term negative emotions, though, lead to chronically raised cortisol levels. As a result, our immune system is suppressed. Raised cortisol also suppresses our endocrine, nervous, and gastrointestinal systems. Our muscles, bones, heart, and blood vessels suffer, too.
The result? We are susceptible to serious diseases, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
Cognitive neurobiologist Caroline Leaf, Ph.D., specializes in healing emotional traumas and physical diseases through “brain detoxing.” Leaf states that “75 to 95 percent of the illnesses that plague us today are a direct result of our thought life … Research shows that fear, all on its own, triggers more than 1,400 known physical and chemical responses and activates more than 30 different hormones.”
If chronic negative emotions are so deadly, what about positive emotions?
Empathy for ourselves and others — the emotion connecting us to the world — is a tremendous healing agent. Compassion “turns on” our immune system and improves health dramatically. All positive emotions, studies show, release brain chemicals called endorphins that dull pain and produce pleasure.
In a 2003 lecture, Pert explained that we are all biologically programmed for happiness:
“In fact, my research over the last 30 years has led me to this conclusion: we’re actually ‘hardwired’ for bliss. By hardwired I mean that we have major endorphin pathways that lead from the back of the brain to the frontal cortex, where we have the most opiate receptors — the cellular binding sites for endorphins. Endorphins are naturally occurring opiates that dull pain and produce euphoria when they bind with opiate receptors. Thus they literally alter our mood on the cellular level … That’s just how we’re designed.”
Although our brains are built for positive emotions, one major obstacle gets in our way. Pert explained that our brain’s functions are hindered by “the thought that we are separate from each other and from the rest of creation.”
In other words, if we lack empathy, if we lack this connection to others and the world by separating ourselves emotionally, indeed from creation itself, we interfere with the hardwiring of our brains. Developing empathy for others and self-empathy, and teaching others to do the same, will dramatically improve not only emotional health but physical health as well.
In short, as a therapist, you are equipped to heal spirit, soul, and body.
Take the Next Step
Can empathy for others and ourselves be learned? According to Welch, it certainly can be.
“If we can embrace own pain and woundedness, we can learn empathy,” he explained. “Graduate programs in clinical counseling require students to be in personal therapy for this very reason. Some of the best therapists I know have dug deeply into their own woundedness and embraced it. They are thus able to understand others’ pain and help them heal, not by feeling judged, but by being understood, by being heard.”
For Welch, receiving God’s forgiveness is essential to learning self-empathy and then extending empathy to others.
“When you receive forgiveness, your masks and defenses melt away,” Welch said. “You can be transparent and rest, and create a safe environment for your clients. In this place of radical self-acceptance, you accept and love others fully, being fully present to them, and invite them to experience their pain. This is the first step toward healing.”
In relating to yourself and possibly future counseling clients with empathy, you will not only experience healing from emotional traumas, but also lower cortisol levels, increase immune capacity, and pave the way for optimum health.
Through empathy, others’ health as well as your own will prosper, year after year.
What should you do with this priceless gift of empathy if you have it? Well, you just might want to consider serving others as a counselor or therapist.