Developing empathy is a skill. We are not necessarily born with ‘inbuilt empathy, but we can certainly develop it (Positive Psychology, 2018). Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings and experience of someone else. Empathy is a deep and subjective understanding of another person (Corey, 2000, p. 179). It moves people to show care and consideration when they are going through difficult times. It is how we understand each other on a deeply personal level. Alfred Adler once quoted, “Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of others and feeling with the heart of another” (GoodReads, n.d.).
If we really want to make valuable, human connections, the emotion of empathy is extremely important. In addition, when we go through difficult situations, we usually like others to express empathy and show their concern as well. Empathy is truly one of the building blocks of quality relationships.
Empathy and the Brain
Like many emotions, empathy is initially developed within the brain (Psychology Today, 2013). A system apart of the cerebral cortex called the supra-marginal gyrus helps to put us in place when or if we begin to act selfishly. This particular region is responsible for all feelings of empathy and communicates with a special neurotransmitter called “mirror neurons.” These tiny forces found within the brain can actually pick up on the emotions of others; therefore, making you physically feel how they are feeling.
The Opposite of Empathy
Since empathy rests on understanding human emotions and displaying compassion. The opposite of empathy is quite intense. Researchers and doctors refer to this lack of empathy as psychopathy, which can also be regarded as anti-social type of behavior (Science Direct, 2017). Movies and books have sensationalised this behaviour to fit the role of popular villains.
Although there are various levels of psychopathy, the basis of it is lacking empathy so intensely that they actually imagine inflicting pain. Due to complex chemical interactions found within the brain, this lack of empathy can lead to manipulation, callousness, and even destructive behavior if not dealt with. The grueling impact of a person living without empathy can be dangerous if allowed to fester.
Some tips for Developing Empathy
If you don’t feel intensely connected to the experiences or feelings of others, it does not suggest that you are a psychopath. The average every-day person who has not experienced certain situations may have a hard time empathizing with someone else.
This lack of human connection can be rebuilt through a few personal exercises.
One way of developing empathy is asking appropriately personal questions to get to know someone. If a person is talking to you about some type of upsetting experience, ask them to express how this experience is impacting their life. Ask them how they are doing and really pay attention to what they are saying. Another great way to work on developing empathy is to put yourself in the shoes of another person. Easier said than done, but try by firstly putting aside your own biases, and even values and so-forth.
For example, imagine a time when you were cold, hungry, or lacking money. Do you remember those feelings? Now, multiply that times 20 and envision yourself being homeless. This devastating experience impacts far too many people. Perhaps previously you didn’t feel for their situation. However, when you place yourself in their shoes, you begin to feel compassion for them.
The Beauty of Empathy
Being empathetic is certainly not a weakness. Although this emotion is aligned with sensitivity, there is great strength is acknowledging true feelings. There is great admiration and beauty in making human connections and expressing compassion.
When a person feels empathy for someone else, this moves them to act. It could be in the form of a helping hand or a shoulder to cry on. Nevertheless, empathy is an important emotion to have if we want to keep, maintain, and nurture our relationships.
Corey, G., (2000). Theory and practice of counselling and psychotherapy (6th ed.). Belmont, California, USA: Wadsworth Publishing
GoodReads, (n.d). Alfred Adler: Quotes. Retrieved January 27, 2019, from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/776552-seeing-with-the-eyes-of-another-listening-with-the-ears
Psychology Today, (2013). The neuroscience of empathy. Retrieved January 27, 2019, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/the-athletes-way/201310/the-neuroscience-empathy
Positive Psychology, (2018). Can empathy be taught? Retrieved January 27, 2019, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-couch/201810/can-empathy-be-taught
Science Direct, (2017). Psychopathy. Retrieved January 27, 2019, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/psychopathy