Have you ever felt someone’s sadness? Felt it so much that maybe it brought tears to your eyes or an aching in your chest? Do you feel like you can feel other people’s emotions strongly and easily? Chances are you probably do. Some are better at this than others, but this ability to sense another’s emotion is a real thing and actually has relevance in relationships, communication, and feeling connected. Some may refer to it as intuition, or empathy, or simply emotionally insightful. However, there are neurological underpinnings to this experience. Some people are more intuitive or empathic than others but really what they are connecting to is a system in our brain that helps us with this. Before I jump into this though let’s clear up some terms.
Empathy, sympathy, and compassion all have subtle differences. Empathy is the capacity to recognize emotions that are being experienced by another person. Sympathy is the perception, understanding, and reaction to the distress of another person. This empathic concern is driven by a switch in paradigms; from a personal perspective to the perspective of what another group or individual needs. Empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably yet they are not the same. Sympathy is a feeling and empathy is a deep emotional understanding. Compassion on the other hand, is the feeling of empathy for others; it is the emotion that we feel in response to the suffering, which usually brings out a desire to help. In fact the etymology of “compassion” is Latin, meaning “suffer with” or “co-suffering.” More involved than simple empathy, compassion commonly gives rise to an active desire to alleviate another’s suffering. Compassion is often emotional and draws on fairness and justice so there is some influence from rationality and judgment as well.
These three human abilities have been the study of researchers for many years. In fact a lot can be learned about one’s psychological makeup based on how much empathy, sympathy, and compassion one does or does not feel. Our temperament, personal experiences, and individual upbringing influence our ability and capacity to tap into these. For example, someone raised in an alcoholic home where they took on the responsibility of the family caretaker might be better at attuning to the emotions and needs of others, often neglecting themselves in the process; also known as co-dependency. The child that was raised in a home that pushed for academic perfection and was emotionally dismissive learned to disconnect from emotions or stuff them; making it difficult to recognize and tolerate their own emotions let alone the emotions of others. The more we can continue to understand ourselves and those around us the more we can develop psychologically as well as have deeper and more meaningful relationships. For addicts and alcoholics this is crucial. When addicts have deep meaningful relationships where they are transparent and “seen” the brain is releasing the very chemicals they sought through intoxication. (See my article “Exposing Our Truth & Making Connections).
Besides the biological and social rewards of connecting to those close to us, we also get psychological rewards. Research of the past 20-30 years has been telling us that humans depend on the minds around us to help us process, make sense of, and heal from our emotions and experiences. This is a hard reality for most addicts who are stubborn “do-it-yourselfers.” Yet, if you ask any person in recovery who has reached out to another in a time of need they will tell you after talking they felt better, even if they weren’t really offered any great advice, rather just heard and understood. This “co-regulation” (one mind helping another) is what makes many 12-step programs, therapy, and friendships so helpful and successful. It is also a crucial part in parenting and other interpersonal relationships such as marriage and partnerships. The research is proving over and over that while independence has a place in our society and is a strength; when it comes to emotions we become stronger the more we can turn to others for support rather than having to go through it alone. This research is being led with cutting age technology that the tech boom we have experienced in the last 10-15 years. We can now study, measure, and understand the brain like we never have before. We are constantly discovering more and more about the intricacies of the brain. One of these amazing discoveries, which plays a huge part in understanding empathy, sympathy, compassion, and connecting to others is the presence of mirror neurons.
In the early 1990’s while studying macaque monkeys, Giacamo Rizzolatti discovered a new class of neurons that were only discharged when one monkey was witnessing the other perform an action. When hooked up to brain imaging machines they discovered the monkey witnessing another monkey grab an object showed identical brain activity as the monkey actually picking up the object. Even though the one monkey only witnessed it and the other actually performed the action their brains were mirroring each other. They continued to explore this and also found humans had this same experience. In fact, they found we did not always need to witness the action for our brain to fire identically. For instance, in a restaurant when a plate is dropped and shattered in the kitchen the patrons brains will be firing as if they also dropped a plate. From these findings Rizzolatti coined the term “mirror neurons.” As they continued to research mirror neurons they found that they did not only fire when actions were being performed or heard, they were also linked to the emotional systems in our brain. When they had one person experiencing disgust and another witnessing the same emotion, expressed by the facial expressions, both persons activated the same neural firing and at the same overlapping location within the brain. Basically their brains mirrored each other with the same type of firing and at the same location in the brain even though one person was feeling disgust and the other only witnessing it. When studying empathy, sympathy, and compassion they found that these mirror neurons play a huge role in one being able to have compassion, empathy, and sympathy. These mirror neurons also play a huge role in our interactions with those close to us.
Besides this information being just extremely fascinating how does this play into day to day interactions? These mirror neurons are always firing, and when we are trying to be a good friend, parent, therapist, sponsor, etc…we can use this information to help us to attune to and support those around us. Our society often jumps to the solution before attuning to the emotion. Don’t jump to the solution too fast, slow down. People are more interested in what you have to say if first they know you get how they feel. Read that again, it’s important. People are more interested in what you have to say if first they know you get how they feel. Instead of thinking about your response when someone is talking, ask yourself what you think they are feeling? Then communicate that. Even if we are not trying to help others it is important to be mindful of our inner experience and managing our emotions. For instance, when communicating, watch your body language, tone of voice, and emotional intensity. Be aware of how upset you are before you have a conversation. Chances are if you are emotionally flooded then the other person is also feeling that and becoming flooded themselves. This often leads to communication failure. Remember that your emotional intensity will be mirrored and felt internally by those around you. However, if two people can regulate their internal experience and not let themselves get flooded then communication lines are more open and successful.
I urge you all to take this information and expand on it. Not only can you affect those closest but you can also affect strangers. Consider how you approach the world. Do you do so with anger, judgment, and jealousy? Are you more aware of other than yourself? Or perhaps, are you more aware of yourself than others? Try walking through your day with gratitude, kindness, and compassion. As you catch the eyes of strangers smile genuinely; be kind, be patient, and be forgiving. Understand the energy you put out to the Universe is real and influential and tapping into the very fabric of our mind. Use it for good and you will experience a return in the energy you put out that will leave a lasting impression.
Curtis Buzanski, LMFT, LAADC