Empathy & Expression: Why Both Are Needed to Have Deeply Satisfying Relationships With Others & Ourselves


Empathy & Expression

Last year (2013), the word empathy permanently became part of my vocabulary. I knew the definition. But I had never studied it in detail - much less thought of in context. The more I started working with mine (and others') experiences as introverts and highly sensitive people, I started incurring a much more broad and expansive realization of a drought of empathy that existed for so many of us from previous relationships we had been in, wanted, or felt like we failed in. 

Carl Jung said, "who looks outside dreams - who looks inside, awakens." 

I wanted both. I FELT both.

Yet another paradox.  

THIS was empathy and expression working together. I just wasn't advanced enough at the time I started doing the work I do now, to fully understand the profound implications of these two aspects working together.

To be clear, empathy is what gives us the ability to step into the shoes (and thoughts, emotions, & even feelings) of another human being - to experience life through their eyes. Sympathy simply has compassion on them - it doesn't want or ask to feel what they feel - it just feels "sorry" for them. That's the difference in the two.

Many highly sensitive people (HSP's) find this to be a double-edged sword. We often feel too much of what others feel and hence, want to feel less at times. It's not that we don't care - we just pick up on way more than we'd like to most days. We feel the subtleties in people's moods even.

Another paradox. It's necessary and it's exhausting. Both.

So here's the thing - a lot of people write and teach about empathy. And empathy is a wonderful topic. It certainly is the preferred method to its more evil and frustrating counterparts, apathy, passivity, and neglect.

However, the one thing I see missing in the teaching of this rewarding way of experiencing the world is how it can best be received, and that is through expression.

Said another way, the highest expression of empathy is two-fold - it's both understanding and expression.


What That Looks Like In The Mirror

It's me, getting up in the morning and looking at myself in the mirror and not just giving myself permission to feel what I feel in that moment, but also expressing how I want to shape those thoughts. Because at our core, we are not our thoughts. If we actually believe that, we're in trouble, because we have lots and lots of thoughts throughout the day about ourselves that simply are just not the truth of who we are. Those thoughts are typically the ego talking.

I may have to house my thoughts, but it doesn't mean that I'm every thought I think about myself.

So...in order to have the best relationship with myself throughout my days, it's imperative I give place to both empathy and expression. The truth about how I really really feel at my core, combined with the honesty to speak to myself about it.


What This Looks Like In Relationships With Others

With another person, this is me really taking a step back out of myself to feel what they feel. Even someone biting my head off, letting their ego speak loudly to manipulate me, or disrespecting me is an opportunity to practice empathy and remain curious about what that outward expression is about.

Remember the quote from above - what's happening outwardly is only a dream (or expression) of what's going on inside (what's awakening).

Another way to frame this is that it's our responsibility to get a bit better about saying when things bother us, when we're frustrated and why, and when we've had enough. 

This is why so many people have unhealthy relationships. Not everyone practices empathy, and not everyone feels free to express. It's the chicken and the egg scenario.


What We Can Do

Knowing that every person we want to be in relationship with can't handle this level of interaction, we have to be selective. The highest expression of empathy can only work with two people who want it to - both want to engage in empathetic growth with one another and both want to exercise more expression with allowing it.

In a new course I'm teaching that just opened up, I'll be delving more into this. You can learn things like:

  • Unpacking the paradox of empathy (that necessary/exhausting thing)
  • The relationship between cognition and empathy (what does it have to do with your brain?)
  • Mirror neurons & their relation to empathy (a profound scientific discovery)
  • Perspective on empathy & the highly sensitive person
  • and more...

If you want more info, you can go here to sign up.The cart will close on June 24th. 

In the meanwhile, what do you find the hardest? Empathy or expression? What is one way this is showing up in your life right now, today?


"Empathy isn’t just something that expands your moral universe. Empathy is something that can make you a more creative thinker, improve your relationships, can create the human bonds that make life worth living. But, more than that, empathy is also about social change — radical social change." --Roman Krznaric

Photo by Shamim Nakhai on Unsplash