THE BLOG
09/02/2014 02:04 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2014

What Does Empathy Even Mean?

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If you are as addicted to this blog as I desperately hope, then you have seen me write a lot about empathy. So maybe you've been too embarrassed to ask, what the hell do I mean using empathy in a psychology context? Why do psychologists throw terms around as though everyone has nothing to do besides reading books about dysfunctional people? Anyway, let me explain empathy in more detail.

Empathy is a wonderful magic technique that brings you closer to whoever you use it on. It's like a potion that makes others calm down, listen to you, and feel connected with you. What it really means is you GENUINELY UNDERSTAND THE OTHER PERSON'S PERSPECTIVE. Empathy can be relationship changing. You can use it at work, with your kids, and of course, with your partner.

Here is how it works. You must truly, 100 percent, be committed to seeing your partner's perspective. You have to think of a time when you felt like they did, and use that memory to help you understand their emotions. You may say, especially if you tend to be avoidant, that you have never felt as upset as your partner does. But, have you ever felt upset at all? Surely. So here's an example of you, before you learn to be empathic:

Your wife: I can't believe you forgot our anniversary! I just want to curl up in a ball and die. You make me feel so unloved. (Cries.)

You (thinking: I have never felt like this. This is a dramatic load of BS. She knows I have a lot going on at work, that provides her with the paycheck she needs so she can stay home with the kids): Come on, it's not the end of the world.

Your wife: I HATE YOU!

See, that didn't go well at all! Let's take it from the top, adding in empathy.

Your wife: I can't believe you forgot our anniversary! I just want to curl up in a ball and die. You make me feel so unloved. (Cries.)

You (thinking: have I ever felt this bad? Well, no, but I remember one time when I was little my dad forgot my birthday. That made me feel pretty crappy, but I didn't react like this. Still, I will try empathizing with that crappy emotion in mind): Wow, I see you are really upset. I would be upset if someone forgot something important to me too. I'm really sorry.

Wife: (crying gets a little quieter) I just feel like you don't care about me. (Do not be fooled! She feels a little better. This is just what women do after you say "I'm sorry," they want to talk more. See this to learn more.)

So the key points of empathy are:

Think: What feeling are they experiencing?

Think: When did I feel something similar?

Say: I understand how you're feeling, and I feel ____ that you feel ____.

We can do it with something positive too.

Your wife: Can you even believe I got Madison into dance camp at the last second? I am so relieved.

You (squelching desire to say "Great, now we can spend money on something else." Thinking instead of the time you thought you failed a class but the professor let you retake the exam): Hey, that's great. You must feel so happy. I'm glad she got in.

Wife: Oh, wonderful, I thought you were going to make some sarcastic remark about the price! Let's go have sex.

I told you it was magic.

Till next time, I Remain, The Blogapist Who Empathizes Unless You Are Three Years Old and Whining in My Ear and Then I Just Dissociate.

For more, visit Dr. Psych Mom on her blog, Facebook, or Twitter.