Empathy and emotional regulation

Empathy is the ability to understand what other people are feeling, put simply, it is seeing things from another person’s viewpoint, and imagining yourself in their place. For example, you see another person who is upset after losing their job and you are able to envision yourself going through the same experience and understand what that feels like. This is a skill that you can practice by doing simple things such as:

Clarify your understanding.

You can't empathise if you don't fully understand what the individual is upset about. So seek clarification on this "If I am understanding this correctly…" By using the word I you are involving yourself in the process.

Put yourself in their shoes.

Try to focus on how the individual is feeling (even if you don't agree with their behaviour in response to those feelings). Offer reassurance by being empathic and non-judgemental, for example. "I would feel this way too in this situation." By confirming that you would feel the same way you create a sense of solidarity, it shows empathy and also assures them that their feelings are understandable.

In stressful situations individuals may not identify what it is they are feeling. If you ask them to tell you how they feel, they may not know themselves. Try asking:

"Help me understand. What you need?"

"What/Who has helped you in the past?"

"Explain to me. How I can help?"


Really listen! This is known as ‘active listening’ – (hearing, paraphrasing, reflecting, responding, summarising).

As well as understanding and practicing empathy, it is important that you understand emotional regulation, as this is a vital part of empathy.

When you are empathic, you identify and feel the emotions of others, however if you also develop emotional regulation, you have the added ability to regulate those emotions that you feel within yourself. This means that you understand them, work with them, and get some perspective, so that they don’t overwhelm you.

Below are a few ways that can help you to self-regulate your emotions:

4a. Create some emotional space

Emotions can happen unexpectantly and quickly. We don’t think “I’m going to be upset ” we just suddenly feel overcome with emotion or sadness. So, by taking a deep breath, and slowing down the moment, we can create some emotional space between the trigger and response.

4b. Noticing what you feel physically in the given moment

The ability to be aware of what you feel physically in the moment is an extremely important skill. For example when someone is sharing something that is very upsetting, do you feel a knot your stomach, do you feel your heart racing or are you starting to sweat?

Noticing your physical reactions to being empathic can give you clues to what you are feeling emotionally, and also be a distraction and allow you some time to control the intensity of the emotion.

Practicing mindfulness

Mindfulness is about paying more attention to the present moment and paying attention to what is going on inside us. Ways to practice mindfulness can include:

  • Taking notice of your thoughts, feelings and emotions and the world around you.
  • Have a regular time of day dedicated you where you sit or walk in the quiet, become aware of your surroundings and practice clearing your mind and just concentrating on the ‘now’ (the birds, the trees rustling, the wind on your face etc.)
  • Trying something new, whether that be a hobby, or a different place to sit for lunch, this can help you to notice the world in a new way.
  • Name your thoughts and feelings that you experience in that moment, for example, this is anxiety, this is happiness etc.

These skills can help you stay calm and avoid engaging in negative thought patterns, or taking on the emotions and feelings of others.

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Author: Maxine Clark

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