"Empathy is: The intimate comprehension of another person's thoughts and feelings, without imposing our own judgment or expectations."
It can also be thought of as "putting oneself in another's shoes." But, how can you do that when you have never actually, and most likely could not possibly ever fully experience what your loved one with mental illness is experiencing as the life they know is taken away from them?
In class we listened to several scenarios that challenged us to imagine how someone with mental illness might be feeling. For instance, imagine that your mind, the origin of your personality, is lost, or altered in some way so that it no longer feels right to you. People have started treating you differently, giving you wary looks that you can't understand, getting impatient when you can't remember something, or telling you that what you're experiencing isn't real. How would you feel, and how would you act in this situation? Would you be afraid - so afraid that you would start to withdraw from others? Or would you pretend like it wasn't happening, just keep pushing the growing terror down and lashing out at those who were trying to help you? And, after you realize that this situation, this altered state of being is the new status quo, would you feel like giving up? Would you keep trying to make it back to your old life even though it seems that every one step forward runs the risk of dragging you two steps back?
By understanding how these inner feelings affect behaviors, we gained a better understanding of the emotions fueling the actions of our loved ones with mental illness. And, by understanding the stages of emotional response, we learned to accept that there is a path that they need to follow (albeit a path beset with obstacles, switchbacks and meanderings).
In essence, by having empathy for our loved ones, we are acknowledging them as individuals rather than illnesses or diagnoses or dependents. We are recognizing and attesting to a part of them--their inner selves--that they have been desperately guarding for fear it would be taken from them by their illness. And in doing this, we are fostering the self-esteem that is essential to their recovery.
For more information, visit the Family-to-Family section of NAMI Southwestern Pennsylvania's website.