Usually, people thinking casually about empathy (or being empathic) are referring to something along the lines of a kindly understanding of the feelings of another.
Sometimes, the inference is that if you empathize with another, you "feel their pain."
A declaration that someone is "lacking empathy" is often tossed at those with whom we're angry and fail to see our point, suggests insensitivity and selfishness.
At times, the term "empathy" is used in the co-dependent or enmeshed situation where one person is so keenly tuned and attentive to the feelings of the other that they "lose" their own ground or sense of themselves.
When I talk about healthy empathy with couples, I describe it this way:
1. You're able to sense (or be attuned to) the other person's internal state (emotional and physical); and
2. you try to understand what has led them to that state; and
3. you do this without losing awareness of your own internal state.
From the point of view of building healthier relationships, empathy is a necessary ingredient.
And, ultimately, in an adult relationship, it needs to be a mutual ingredient -- that is, both partners need to have the capacity for empathy for the other.
Empathy may come naturally, but it ain't always easy
On a lovely spring day when you're with your new love, it can be easy to feel like you're both in tune with each other.
But, as C.S. Lewis said, "Everyone feels benevolent if nothing happens to be annoying him at the moment."
Now imagine that same couple, a year or two down the road, having traveled some real miles, complete with the potholes and detours of annoyances and grievances and hurts.
How is healthy, mutual empathy doing then?
Giving empathy a boost
From the standpoint of creating a greater capacity for healthy empathy, there are many paths. One which I've found to be very helpful, and easily accessible, is the simple practice of mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness meditation helps grow one's capacity for empathy not only because it calms down your nervous system, but also because it affords you a greater awareness of your own internal state.
Additionally, when you're not so wound up and driven by your own unconscious feelings, you have more "room" to be able to tune in to the internal state of others.
You're also less susceptible to having knee-jerk or habitual reactions.
Neuroscientists are reporting ever-increasing evidence that mindfulness meditation rewires the brain in a number of ways, including some of the circuits which allow for healthy, secure attachment -- and the circuits believed to be involved in empathy.
You can see how it becomes even more compelling to have couples practice mindfulness meditation.
There's even evidence that increased mindfulness in just one member of a couple can make a difference in the partner's level of mindfulness (although please don't take that to reinforce any co-dependent beliefs that "s/he'll change if I get it right").
Add into the mix that empathy, as emotions are being shown to do, may have a sort of "contagion effect," leading to the spreading of empathy throughout your family, friends, and community.
Maybe even the world.
Wouldn't it be great to someday see a video of Glenn Beck responding to a rising tide of nationwide empathy reaching his doorstep? A tsunami to extinguish what appears to be the ever-burning, never-consumed shrub that is his amygdala? (Note that it's not required to start with empathy for Glenn Beck -- that might be for advanced practitioners. We're just looking to increase the empathy quotient in general.)