It’s a hot topic these days, and all one has to do is tune into the latest-breaking news to hear that infamous six-letter word rolling off the lips of psychologists, researchers, monks, and politicians all over the world. Empathy. An innate human characteristic that, when practiced wisely, appears to be capable of correcting a whole host of the world’s most pertinent struggles. Yet, when forgotten, it tends to lend itself as the root cause of most.
The following article aims to examine exactly what empathy is, how to identify its absence, and practical tools to cultivate more meaningful connections with oneself and each other through its development.
Essentially, empathy is the ability to comprehend the thoughts, feelings, and perspectives of others. We can cultivate empathy by stepping into another person’s shoes, aspiring to understand them, and then utilizing this newfound understanding to illicit a more tender response. Empathy creates equality through the surrendering of our illusionary separateness.
This differs from sympathy, which tends to cultivate feelings of pity or sorrow for the hardships of another. Sympathetic responses involve the comprehension of another’s experience; however it is often viewed through an individualized lens. Instead of abandoning our personal perspective and stories, sympathy is based on a projection of what WE feel, the other person may be going through. In short, empathy refers to the ability to understand shortcomings as if they were our own, whereas sympathy refers to condolence feelings for the misfortunes of another.
When practiced regularly, empathy becomes a way in which to expand our moral compass. It offers new outlooks, new conversations, and advocates for a world of increased compassion. In contrast, a lack of empathy, and therefore the inability to imagine ourselves in the place of another, ultimately breeds separatism; cultivating a culture of intolerances towards groups of people who differ in their beliefs, traditions, and ways of life.
“Learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins. And it’s up to you to make that happen.” -Barack Obama
Empathetic Deficiency: Signs and Symptoms of a Divisive Culture
In an increasingly divided society, it’s no surprise that psychologists are shining a light on mental health conditions more than ever, and a lack of empathetic responses are no exception. Alike our primate relatives, humans are born with a deep-seeded program to take care of each other’s well-being, yet, somewhere along the way, we appear to have unlearned this instinctual response. With racism, wars, sexism, greed, hatred, and divorce rates on the rise, it’s important to understand how empathetic deficiencies can result in harmful consequences not just for individuals and their relationships, but society as a whole.
Qualities that Inhibit Empathy:
- Self-centered behavior
- Blaming others
- Lack of emotional intelligence
If You Don’t Use It, You’ll Lose it
Experts agree that similar to curiosity and resiliency, empathy is one of the seven innate qualities in which humans are born into this world already possessing. However, recent research suggests that, unless nurtured, our willingness to accept the feelings of others’ as our own becomes diminished; producing a long line of problematic scenarios such as detachment, isolation, and avoidance of meaningful connection.
It’s no surprise that the current generation demonstrates some of the most polarizing tendencies in history. At a time when there’s the consistent pressure to be instantly available through wireless devices, it can be shocking to ponder our underlying disconnection from each other and from the planet. Excessive logging, man-made fires, and the constant sacrifice of natural habitat for wealth has created the most dire global environmental situation in centuries. Without a fundamental relationship to our home and all those we share it with, we become estranged from our own selves. If we’re unable to identify or feel emotions that live within our own body, how can we expect to relate to the emotions that live within another?
Practices For an Enhanced Empathic Outlook
Psychologists around the world agree that empathy and tolerance go hand in hand. Therefore, in aiming to live with a more empathetic outlook, one must be willing to embrace a point of view that differs from their own. How do we get comfortable with the practice of understanding and accepting ourselves and others? Below is a list of five tangible steps to increasing empathetic bonds in your own life.
Step One: Develop an Emotional IQ
- Identify where emotions reside in your body (happiness/loneliness/anger/grief)
- Observe your reactions to situations and people
- Notice your ability to handle stress
- Start a daily or weekly journalling practice to identify personal feelings and thoughts
- Invite a meditation practice into your day
Step Two: Sharpen Listening Skills
- Make eye contact when speaking with others
- Listen for clarity instead of just waiting for a turn to speak
- Ask questions
- Pay attention to nonverbal cues
- Notice any personal tendencies for judgment
- Accept opinions shared by others with respect
Step Three: Be Vulnerable
- Exchange beliefs and options in a compassionate way
- Address conflicts calmly
- Speak from a place of honesty and truth
- Share your experiences
Step Four: Try On Someone Else’s Life
- Spend time with those living a different lifestyle than yourself
- Volunteer your time
- Experience a new culture
- Be open and mindful of other’s experiences
- Nurture relationships with those you trust
Step Five: Become a Leader
- Challenge prejudice
- Embrace commonality
- Discuss social issues in a respectful manner
- Lead by example for future generations
Regardless as to what we may have once believed, empathy is a trait that demonstrates a great deal of emotional intelligence and strength to maintain. After all, it’s empathy, which facilitates us in relating to each other on a basic human level; free from discrimination and inequality. It opens the door for mutual respect and understanding between people of differing appearance, belief systems, and backgrounds. In becoming aware of how a lack of empathy has led us to a point of polarization, we can better navigate ourselves towards a more supportive way of existence for future generations.
“Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone. ’” – Brene Brown
- Human Empathy Through the Lens of Social Neuroscience | Jean Decety* and Claus Lamm | Department of Psychology and Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, The University of Chicago | Article
- Friends or foes: Is empathy necessary for moral behavior? | Jean Decety1,2 and Jason M. Cowell1 | Article
- Empathy as an innate human attribute | Article
- Empathy and the Development of Affective Skills | Anna Ratka, PharmD, Ph.D. | Article