What advice can you offer to me about the following frustrating situation: I have forgiven my partner, offering compassion and empathy toward her. She was insensitive to me on several occasions when she was under deep stress at work. She is convinced that other people cannot know her own private world and so empathy, in her view, is unreachable. In other words, my words of empathy are hollow for her. What do you suggest that I do? I ask because she seems to think that true forgiveness, involving empathy, is impossible.
This is a very interesting situation. I say that because I have not encountered a situation like this until you brought it up. If she thinks that you cannot know her inner world, even though you are convinced that you are able to do this to a degree, then you might try a different approach. Instead of using words that suggest you have empathy for her inner world, try to focus instead on her behavior and circumstances, not to excuse her behavior but to put it in the context of her recent challenges when she hurt you. She should be able to see that you are able to concretely observe the behaviors and circumstance that increased her stress and likely contributed to her insensitive remarks. She then should be able to understand that you are viewing her as a valuable person who is more than the insensitivities she has shown to you.
In your Process Model of Forgiveness, you have one unit called compassion. I am trying to forgive someone who passed away recently. Can I have compassion on this person and if so, how does this work?
Compassion includes at least four elements:
1) Sympathy toward the one who hurt you. Sympathy is an emotional reaction to another’s pain. For example, if someone comes to you angry that he just lost his job and now is struggling financially, you have sympathy when you feel sorry for the person. His anger and unfortunate situation leads to a different emotion in you: sadness.
2) Empathy toward the one who hurt you. Empathy is stepping inside the other’s shoes (so to speak) and feeling the same feeling as the other. Thus, when the other is angry, you empathize with that person when you also feel anger.
3) Behaving toward the other by supporting him or her in the time of distress. This could include a kind word or talking about the strategy of solving the job problem, as examples.
4) Suffering along with the person. This latter point is the deepest aspect of compassion. It could involve helping the person financially before a new job is secured; it could involve driving the person to a job interview.
In the case of having compassion for a deceased person, you can have sympathy and empathy (the first two elements of compassion), but you cannot engage in the other two elements because behavior with and toward the other is not possible. Compassion need not have all four elements to count as compassion. You can think of the hard times endured by the deceased person and react with sympathy and empathy. Such compassion may aid your forgiveness.
I can sympathize with my brother who hurt me, but I don’t seem able to have empathy for him (stepping inside his shoes, as the saying goes, and feeling what it is like inside of him.) Will I ever have compassion for him without empathy?
Not being able to empathize with your brother today does not mean you will never be able to do this. Empathy can open the door to compassion. Sympathy, or feeling sorry for him, also may be such a door to the eventual development of compassion. Yet, as you are seeing, empathy is the deeper, more challenging perspective. Here are some questions that might help you with empathy toward your brother: Was your brother hurt by others some time in the past? How deeply was he hurt? Is he still carrying those wounds? Can you see your brother’s struggles in life? Your answers may induce a greater empathy for him as you see his wounds from his perspective.
Does the forgiveness process require that one feels empathy toward the other person, or is sympathy sufficient?
Empathy is the process by which one “steps inside the shoes of the other” and feels the feelings of that person. Sympathy is more of a reaction to the other. For example, suppose a teenager comes to you and he is very angry about failing a test. You show empathy if you try to feel the student’s anger. In contrast, you show sympathy by reacting to the student’s anger, for example, by feeling sad for the person.
When you forgive, we need to realize that this is both a process in which we start slowly and it is an imperfect process in that we do not always reach the deepest parts of that process. Thus, one can feel sympathy toward the offending person by feeling sorry for that person. Yet, a deeper response is “stepping inside the person’s shoes” with empathy and seeing, for example, the person’s woundedness, the person’s fears and confusions. I say this is “deeper” because you are developing more insights into whom the other actually is. As you see people, in all of their humanity, this more likely will lead to compassion for that person. The compassion can lead to forgiveness, or loving those who have not loved you.
Learn more at Forgiving is not. . .