The connection between empathy and emotional health

Empathy. Some have it, some don’t. Or so it may seem.

Like most qualities, it can be present to a greater or lesser degree in humans and is an important factor in connecting and establishing relationships with other people. Empathy is useful for seeing a situation from another person’s perspective and truly understanding the impact and influences of events and exchanges. 

Most people require empathy to some degree to feel like another person truly understands their challenges or emotions, or to feel as though someone else has ‘truly walked their path’. It is a quality that we have come to expect from certain people. We expect a doctor or a counsellor to display empathy when we talk to them to show that they really understand our problems. 

Empathy can have a powerful impact on our relationships, personal and professional, and offering support and empathy to others can have a profound effect on the quality of communication that is experienced on both sides.

When others don’t display empathy

If you think about it hard enough you will be able to identify interactions with people that have a low or non-existent capacity for empathy. It usually leads to uncomfortable exchanges and leaves us feeling hurt, bewildered, or completely misunderstood.

Those that suffer from a lack of empathy can be perceived as selfish or even narcissistic as they seem to have little care or understanding for the feelings and emotions of those around them. These are the people that are often argumentative or just have to be ‘right’ at any cost. They may act selfishly, or quickly find fault in everyone around them while refusing to take any responsibility of their own. 

For some, this can stem from limited self-awareness, or may even be an intentional attempt to mask insecurities or vulnerabilities to hide them from the outside world. On the flip side, low empathy may be displayed as always being happy no matter what. Nothing is a problem, nothing is an issue, everything is perfect. This can also be a red flag that indicates being out of touch with true emotions. 

How empathy affects emotional health 

Empathy does not always mean that we completely agree or share the same point of view as another person, but it does provide us with insights into what the other person is going through. For those individuals that are having an emotional breakdown or experiencing challenges with emotional health, being able to talk to an empathetic listener can often make all the difference. 

People that are having some type of crisis in their life can often feel isolated or alone. 

  • Having the ability to empathise with these people or connect with them on an emotional level can reduce or even remove their feelings of isolation.
  • Allowing someone to talk and express their thoughts and emotions clearly without being judged can provide positive benefits that make the other person feel that you are truly ‘on their side’.
  • Displaying empathy can generally improve another person’s emotional state. 

Poor emotional health has been shown to take its toll on emotional health with sufferers losing their ability to place themselves in another’s shoes or see things from their point of view. In time, this begins to erode the ability to connect with people, engage in meaningful relationships, or interact on an authentic level. 

This can deteriorate further over time if emotional health is not improved. 

In times of emotional stress or trauma lack of sleep, insomnia or disturbed sleep patterns are all common hallmarks of those experiencing poor emotional health.

There is also a strong correlation between the lack of sleep and reduced empathy. As the body’s system’s tire and energy levels reduce, the ability to provide empathetic understanding diminishes, sometimes to a point where it can seem lost altogether. 

People having an emotional health crisis may also suffer from depression or anxiety with low moods or irritability. This can also cause a once empathetic person to struggle with emotional connection and they may not be able to achieve the same level of understanding as once they did.

Until the emotional issue is resolved, the ability to display or maintain empathy may be temporarily lost. 

Can empathy return?

Many that have had internal struggles are often doubtful that normal feelings will ever return. In the case of individuals that were once highly empathetic, they may often wonder if the quality will ever come back.

The good news is that while emotional challenges may diminish empathy, that does not mean that it is lost forever. Often, once the situation that is causing low emotional health has been resolved, negative feelings can fade and positive ones will return.

Depression gives away to positivity, and maintaining better sleep patterns can mean that the ability to connect and show empathy returns. For most people, this improves overall wellbeing and interpersonal relationships. 

As humans, we naturally gravitate to those people that make us feel good and understand us, so having empathy lends itself to creating friendships and making connections with others. Empathy allows us to be compassionate to others and people recognise and respond to that, even if only subconsciously.

These improvements in human connections also feed our own emotional health. Positivity and communication when fed back and forth generate an almost symbiotic flow of energy that feeds our spiritual and emotional senses. 

Maintaining empathy can keep this flow of energy moving back and forth in a way that supports good emotional health.

Can empathy be developed?

If you feel that you are not a naturally empathetic person, don’t worry. Just because you may not have the ability to understand another’s thoughts and feelings from their point of view, it doesn’t mean that the skill cannot be developed. 

In fact, the belief generally held is that empathy can be improved by using techniques to develop the ability. 

Some of the steps that can be followed to learn how to gain empathy are:

Talk to new people

Be curious about people. Ask them about their life and their challenges, learn about their childhood or beliefs. Start with associates or colleagues, then try to speak to complete strangers. Find out what shaped their thinking. Try to be interested and not interesting.

Walk in another person’s shoes (for real)

Experience life as someone else does. Take up a new sport or hobby, or go somewhere totally new. Understand why someone may think as they do, if you are a Christian, go to a Buddhist Temple. Go to an entirely new part of your town or city, or join a different gym. 

Work on a joint project

Working together with other people often demonstrates commonalities more than it highlights differences. Joining forces to achieve a shared goal can help to provide a deeper understanding of what drives other people. 

Challenge your biases

Think about what your preconceived notions are and challenge them. You may be privileged without knowing it. Consider what it would be like to be of another ethnicity, or live as a disabled person. Questioning biases will help to dismiss assumptions about people. 

The bottom line is that by practising becoming more sensitive to others’ experiences and influences, you can cultivate your own empathy. Over time the feeling can be developed and maintained to improve interactions with other people and in doing so, support your own positive emotional health. 


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About the Author

Jon is a highly experienced wellbeing specialist, trainer and clinician who helps busy, overwhelmed people to boost joy, bounce-back-ability and performance in and outside of work.