Practicing Empathy and Differentiation When Helping

By Joel Ybarra, LCMFT

Some would say the largest part of being able to help others is empathizing with them, but it’s important we’re able to do this in a helpful and constructive way. Empathy is often defined as being able to see through another’s eyes. It’s amazing – we’re able to “read” and recreate the internal experience of another within ourselves by observing their facial expressions and imagining what we might feel in their place. You can see how it may be easy to get too emotionally involved.

There are some different ways we get “too involved.” Sometimes we try pull people out of their experience because we do not want them to be in pain. Other times, we have our own emotional experience of the thing and are not able to find our way out of that. We can also have some other anxious reaction, such as judging the other person or their experience, which keeps us from just receiving and supporting them as they are.

At the same time, being disconnected from and unable to see what another person is feeling is not helpful, either. I like to think of receiving another and knowing them deeply, but then also remaining deeply within yourself. This is a form of differentiation. You do not need to give yourself up or let yourself get emotionally high-jacked to be helpful. In fact, if you do, it will cause more of a problem, not allowing the other person to work through their own emotional process. People are put off by this. They might stop sharing themselves with you because you interrupt their emotional process. They do not need your emotions in the way. Theirs are complicated enough!

But people long to be known. They are helped by connection with another human being. As soon as you understand them well, the healing can begin! They do not need you to think or feel exactly what they think or feel. The more deeply you know and see the other, but also remain deeply within yourself, the better you will be able to help. We need to know where the line is between ourselves and the other – where we end and they begin. We are all on our own roads, leading separate but connected lives. We can help by seeing others, knowing them and not interrupting their experience with our own. May we remain empathetically differentiated with one another!