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Show empathy to improve your health

And, when it can become too much

It’s likely that at some point in your life, you’ve heard “don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” This commonly used saying is a metaphor for showing empathy, or the ability to understand the feelings of other people.

Throughout last year we all saw the need for more empathy. Whether it was through wearing a mask to limit the spread of COVID-19. Or, learning about and supporting our neighbors impacted by racial injustice. And, even loving and listening to others who might not have the same political viewpoints as we do.

Whatever you went through in 2020 and beyond, it’s obvious that the ability to show empathy makes you a better friend and family member. But, it also impacts your physical and mental health, and your experience with your health care providers.

Empathy defined

According to Merriam-Webster, empathy is External Site the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another. When you show empathy, you’re able to feel what another person might be going through, even if it doesn’t relate to your current circumstances.

people good at showing empathy

People who are good at showing empathy External Site are likely able to:

  • Really listen to what others have to say
  • Naturally pick up on how other people feel
  • Be a go-to person for advice

Empathy vs. sympathy

Although the words empathy and sympathy External Site may sound similar, they’re two different things. When you sympathize with someone, you can share the feelings that the other person might be going through. Empathy is a little deeper. When you’re empathetic, you can understand the feelings, even if you don’t share them.

Empathy can improve your physical and mental health

While it may seem strange that you can improve your own health by understanding the feelings of others, it’s true. Mental health professionals say that people who have high levels of empathy also have larger social circles and more satisfying relationships External Site.

In addition, researchers say that showing empathy can also contribute to External Site:

  • Lower stress levels. The better we regulate our emotions, the more we’re able to relate to other people in positive ways. This ability is known as emotion regulation, which is essential to taking care of our own stress.
  • Less likelihood of workplace burnout. The more we build our empathetic abilities, the better we’re able to handle difficult work situations, communicate with others and feel better understood.
  • Greater morality. Empathy helps us create rules around what is considered “acceptable” behavior, and is the foundation for healthy, safe communities that take care of those less fortunate.

When showing empathy becomes too much

Although the ability to show empathy is generally thought to have a positive impact on you and those around you, it can take its toll — especially if you identify as an empath External Site.

The term empath is a relatively new way to describe people who are deeply tuned into the feelings of people around them. These types of people actually feel emotions as part of their own experience, which means they can take on the happiness and pain of others.

Taking on the emotions of others can get exhausting, eventually leading to what mental health professionals call "compassion fatigue" External Site or "empathy fatigue" External Site. If you find yourself feeling this way, it's important to recognize your emotions. Then, invest in some self-care, like eating well, exercising or anything else you might enjoy. Experts also recommend talking about your feelings — whether that be with a trusted friend or through therapy with a medical professional

Empathy and health care

The ability to feel and express empathy is one thing that can make a doctor outstanding. You know you have an empathetic doctor if they’re compassionate, understanding, and aren’t simply trying to get to their next patient.

This can be easier said than done. With the demands of the medical field, it can be easy for doctors and nurses to become task-focused, rather than people-focused. If you feel like your doctor isn’t empathetic enough, you have some options, according to External Site:

  1. Say something. Your care is personal to you, but it may be routine for your provider. Advocate for your own health and feelings, and ask your doctor to speak in easy-to-understand terms.
  2. Ask them to sit down. Sitting down and talking face-to-face may help providers slow down and remember that this is a one-on-one conversation.
  3. Point out multi-tasking. Nothing makes you feel less understood than when you’re talking to a doctor and it seems like they are focused on something else. Don’t be afraid to politely ask for one-on-one attention during your appointment.
  4. Report your concerns. Many hospitals and doctor’s offices have systems set up to express patient satisfaction. Communicate to that department. You can also leave a review on sites like External Site, External Site and External Site. If you’re a Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield member, you can leave and read provider reviews by logging in to myWellmark® and using the Find Care tool Secure.
  5. Find a new doctor. If you still don’t feel like your provider is showing enough empathy, it may be time to find a new one. Choosing a personal doctor who's right for you is an important decision, because it’ll help you get the most from your health care. If you’re a Wellmark member, log in to myWellmark Opens New Window to find an in-network doctor near you.

4 tips to improve empathy in children

According to some surveys, empathy is declining External Site in the United States. That’s why it’s even more important to teach children about understanding others’ situations and feelings. Some ways you can cultivate empathy in children External Site (and anyone you spend time with) are:

  1. Show empathy yourself. It’s true, children are always watching. The more empathetic feelings and actions they see you exhibit, the greater the likelihood of them carrying on those traits. You can empathize with children by taking an active role in their physical and emotional needs, respecting varying personalities and encouraging activities they truly enjoy.
  2. Make caring for others a priority. Send the message that showing kindness and compassion for others is an important value in your home. One way to do this is by showing that the world doesn't revolve around your child's and there are times when the needs of others' should come before their own. 
  3. Give children the opportunity to show empathy. Ask them about their friends, classmates. and even those who aren't in their immediate circle. Encourage them to appreciate different perspectives and find additional ways to be helpful in their community. 
  4. Help them manage their feelings. Sometimes negative feelings like anger, jealousy or disappointment can get in the way of showing empathy. If you see that a child is misdirecting their feelings, help them name why they're feeling the way they do, demonstrate steps to control those emotions and practice ways to respond to and resolve conflicts.