In an episode of her podcast The Light, Michelle Obama talks about the transformative power of empathy and how it has the potential to solve most of the world’s problems.
The former First Lady says that empathy—which is the ability to understand another person’s thoughts and feelings from their point of view, rather than your own—is an emotion that is underdeveloped in us as a society.
She says that we don’t teach our children the importance of empathy and we don’t practice it nearly as much as we should as adults.
It’s important to point out that empathy differs from sympathy—this is where we are moved by the feelings of someone but we still maintain an emotional distance from their situation.
Often, having gone through emotional pain in our past can make us more empathetic towards others—a sure sign of emotional growth and intelligence.
So how do you know if you’ve evolved into a more empathetic person as a result of past emotional pain.
Here are eight notable signs.
1) You can imagine yourself in their situation
One of the basic tenets of empathy is the ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s situation—particularly because you have gone through something similar yourself.
My father passed away at the age of 68 five years ago. I adored my father more than anything else in the world, so when I hear of someone’s parent passing away—even if it’s an acquaintance I haven’t seen in years—I feel the need to reach out to tell them I can understand their pain.
I understand that losing a parent is like losing a part of you, and that from the moment of their passing, nothing will ever be the same. Even future happy and celebratory moments will always be tinged with sadness because you feel the pain of their absence at especially those times.
I also remember when my dad passed, although there were many who offered their condolences, I didn’t really know anyone who had lost a parent—particularly their father—and also unexpectedly in a way.
An acquaintance who I had only seen a couple of times at functions, unexpectedly reached out. She sent a long, detailed message about how she lost both of her parents—her father when she was in her teens and her mother when she was in her 20s.
She emphasized with my loss and said she felt the need to reach out even though we have never really spoken to each other.
Needless to say, we’ve evolved from acquaintances to friends and I’m grateful for it.
2) You’ve become an active listener
As someone who has gone through their own emotional pain, you know that when someone is telling you about something they are sad or upset about, the last thing they want to feel is that you’re listening for the sake of it, and not really hearing or understanding them.
“We actively listen when we intentionally work to comprehend and retain information,” says Madeline Miles from BetterUp.
This means that you use direct eye contact, mimic body language, and also remove distractions, she says.
“Better conversational engagement improves your ability to relate to the other person.”
3) You have a better sense of when your input isn’t needed
You know that just because a friend or loved one is talking to us about their sadness doesn’t mean that they necessarily need our input.
We can offer a safe space for them to talk without trying actively to make them feel better. Even though the intentions are good, it’s actually annoying for people to say things like “Things will get better,” or “You’ll get over it.”
People often just want their feelings heard and validated. They don’t want reassurances or a false sense of hope.
An empathetic person simply tries to be as present as possible.
4) You can sense other people’s emotions and are able to pick up on non-verbal cues
As an empathetic person, you know that people are often sensitive to the moods of others and can usually clue in even when nothing is being communicated.
Sometimes what’s not said is just as important as what is said. “We often rely more on non-verbal cues than verbal ones to extract meaning from a situation,” says Miles.
This could come from gestures, facial expressions, as well as eye contact. Miles emphasizes that those who are empathetic pay attention to the volume and tone of a person’s voice as well as the volume level at which they’re speaking.
They then regulate their own non-vocal cues accordingly. For example, they use a calm tone of voice and may use a soothing touch on the arm. This way of communicating is more caring than loud gestures and a booming voice.
5) You ask compassionate questions
Compassion takes empathy further from understanding how someone feels and trying to imagine how that might feel for you as a mode of relating, they say.
“It’s feeling what that person is feeling, holding it, accepting it, and taking some kind of action.”
Experts say that when someone is expressing empathy they will employ something called empathetic questioning.
Empathetic questioning is asking questions with the intent to understand.
Empathetic questions can look like:
“How is this situation affecting you?”
“How is this keeping you from succeeding?”
“What did you learn from the last big obstacle that you had to overcome?”
“What would be the ideal outcome for you?”
6) You’re not judgemental
You probably feel this one in your bones.
The beauty about empathetic people is that they are non-judgemental and they hold a safe space for people to share their truth and their burdens.
“Empathetic listening must be non-judgemental,” according to The Family Institute at Northwestern University. “We convey that feelings are acceptable just as they are, without labeling them [as] good, bad, or wrong.”
7) You make it a practice to be patient
You know that being patient is a cornerstone to being empathetic. In fact, you were probably grateful to the patient people in your own life when you were going through your own emotional pain.
“Empathy is a form of connection between two people that requires an immense amount of patience,” says Ella Heaney at Medium.
And this connection needs time to formulate, she adds.
In the words of Brené Brown: “In order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows the feeling.”
8) You know never to ask these four questions
A truly empathetic person would never ask the following four questions, according to Psychology Today expert Peg Streep.
I know exactly what you are feeling. I’ve been there.
Streep says that even though you may think you’re expressing support and solidarity to someone else’s similar plight, what you’re actually doing is making the situation about you when it’s really about them.
This minimizes the person’s unique experience, she says.
It could always be worse.
I have to say I hate this one. When my dad was in and out of the hospital with deteriorating health, it was nice to have people reach out, but I did cringe whenever I heard this sentence. To me, it felt like it was the worst and trying to be grateful for not having a worse outcome at that time didn’t help in the least.
Try to be positive. Maybe it was meant to be.
I love what Streep says about this worn-out phrase.
“A true empath leaves their stash of positive-thinking magnets and memes at home,” she says.
“While you may think this kind of cheerleading is exactly what someone needs to hear…chances are you’re wrong…That support does not include people suggesting this is a trial which will make us stronger. If, at some point, a person decides that’s how he or she wants to view that experience, that’s different.”
And the worst one yet (in my opinion):
“Don’t you think it’s time to move on?”
No one—except the person who is suffering—can decide when the time is right to move on.
“Your inner cheerleader may think this is helpful, but the emotional distance implicit in sympathy becomes fully realized with the statement suggesting that grief, mourning, or recovery come with a use-by-date stamp like perishables on the supermarket, and that “wallowing” is bad for the soul,” says Streep.
As someone who has suffered emotional pain yourself, you get this.