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Understanding Empathy

I have two friends, one from kindergarten, and one from first grade.  Real friends. I’m talking about the 500 Facebook friends you have, or the dinner party you throw with 10-12 close friends, I am talking about the friends that are loyal to the core, that don’t judge you, that actively listen, and will jump on a plane if they think you’re in trouble.  And most importantly, they make you a better person.

Having all met in grade school, the three of us are best friends. Sometimes two of us will tease one of them cause when we call her, and are angry with a person or a situation, somehow she manages to rise above it, and be the bigger better person.  She always seems to be able to speak to the opposite side of the situation, and present empathy. That is the bombshell she recently dropped on me, which has changed my whole approach to a bad situation.

I always thought empathy meant you had to have personal experience with a situation in order to have empathy, or show it. For example, if someone is going through a divorce, how can I show empathy when I’ve never been married so, how can I even begin to understand the pain of a divorce?  But I was wrong. That’s not what empathy is about.  So, here’s the situation.

I have a family member that used to be my rock; my person.  Whenever I was going through depression she would instinctively know and would call me, (even if I didn’t answer the phone) she could call and call and call and never give up.  And when I called her she would always pick up. When she thought my depression got worse, she went to a parent to help step in to help me when I would never think to reach out.  When I was manic, she could hear it in my voice. She was my best friend, and ally.

When she met her husband there was a shift. Slowly she stopped calling as much, and when I would call her my calls would go to voicemail. When I would rarely get her on the phone, if her husband entered the room all of a sudden she had to go. Eventually getting ahold of her seemed impossible, and when she got married it got worse. She became completely estranged from me, and isolated from the family. Her husband had so much control over her I couldn’t stand it, and would blame her for the situation. As much as I could point the finger at her husband as the problem, well, she’s allowing it to happen so she too shares responsibility.

Her husband more or less despised me.  It got so bad that even when I would email her, he would reply back with some heinous response which I would also place blame on her. How could she let him talk to me like that? I was dropped as a Facebook friend, and blocked from her phone. All of it. I just didn’t understand it, and my frustration and pain was toward her, and her husband.

Last week I got a twitter alert and bam, it was from her. Out of nowhere, all of a sudden, she was following me? It’s hard to describe the feelings that I had in the moment. Shock, confusion, I don’t know, but my response was not good.

So, I called my best friend friend. She knew all about the history of the story, and was there for me during the pain of losing that relationship, so knew how hard it was on me, however, her response wasn’t to perpetuate the negative feelings I had about the situation, but to have empathy.

My friend pointed out how she was reaching out to me. She pointed out that being in such a controlling and toxic relationship must be hard. She pointed out what it must feel like to be estranged and isolated. Instead of blaming her for dropping me, she turned the table and made me imagine what it would be like to be in her shoes. She more or less made me understand the power of empathy, and the definition of empathy.

You don’t have to be in someone’s shoes to be empathetic. You can have empathy, despite not being in someone else’s situation.  You can show compassion, and think about what it would be like to be a that person. When I gave it some thought, if I think the root of empathy meant I had to experience a situation, then that made it all about me. My response to my family member in all this was actually rooted in selfishness. I don’t have to experience a situation to have empathy. Empathy is not about me. This was a game changer, and without the insight, love and compassion of my friend, I never would have learned or understood that.

Having compassionate friends that teach you how to be a better person might be one of the biggest blessings in life. You don’t need a dozen friends, and chances are you’ll go through life with just a handful of the true friendships that are forever.

And that is enough.


Understanding Empathy

Erica Loberg

Erica Loberg was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA. She attended Columbia University in New York and graduated with a BA in English. She is a published poet and author of Inside the Insane, Screaming at the Void, What Men Should Know About Women, What Women Should Know About Men, Diamonds From The Rough and Undressed.

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APA Reference
Loberg, E. (2018). Understanding Empathy. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 19, 2019, from


Last updated: 19 Mar 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 19 Mar 2018
Published on All rights reserved.