Simply put, empathy is an awareness of someone else’s feelings in a way that you are able to put yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling.
Empathy will play an important role in everything you do in your role as a peer support worker. Empathy will come up throughout the whole training.
When we tap into empathy, we know that we could very easily be in the same situation as that person, if we haven’t already been there.
In her book I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) (2008), Brené Brown references nursing scholar Teresa Wiseman’s four attributes to empathy:
- The ability to see the world through another person’s perspective
- Staying out of judgment
- Paying attention to, and doing our best to understand another person’s emotions
- Communicating your understanding of that person’s feelings
Sympathy is feeling bad/sad for someone without putting yourself in their shoes. Sympathy can have an element of pity, whereas empathy is feeling with someone–empathy involves perspective-taking.
The especially difficult part of empathy is that it makes us vulnerable. It asks us to tap into the difficult feelings inside ourselves in order to connect with the other person. That can feel scary. As peer supporters, we need to practice good self-care, and self-compassion.
Empathy puts us in someone else’s shoes, but it stops being supportive if we are so enmeshed in the situation that we fall apart. Choosing to be empathetic and compassionate is important, as is avoiding overwhelm from taking on someone’s difficult emotions as your own. Part of your self-care will be learning how you take care of you while you are supporting someone else.