Published on November 25th, 2022
Empathy is the ability to recognize, understand and be considerate of the emotions, feelings, and experiences of other people. Empathy is found in people who are emotionally intelligent or in touch and aware of their own feelings. Being in touch with your feelings allows you to become in tune with the needs and emotional experiences of others. Chances are you have probably experienced empathy before, even without knowing it.
What Is Empathy?
Have you ever identified so personally with what someone is expressing emotionally that it feels like you are experiencing those emotions yourself? That is empathy. Yet empathy goes even further. Being truly empathic is when you can not only identify with the other person’s emotions but also actually imagine how that person is impacted by those emotions. It is seeing the world through another person’s eyes, and understanding their distinct perspective.
Why Is Empathy Important?
Empathy is an important skill to have for different reasons. It is a major component for understanding the experiences and perspectives of other people. Empathy helps you constructively relate to others. Without empathy, having tolerance for people who are different than yourself is challenging. It can cause challenges with taking accountability for yourself and developing healthy relationships. A lack of empathy can have consequences on your community and society. The following are reasons why empathy is important:
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Empathy Helps You Give Loved Ones What They Need.
Becoming more empathic will most likely teach you the lesson of “putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.” If you can empathize with your loved ones by understanding their personal experiences and pain, you will be more likely to give them what they emotionally need in the relationship. Your ability to be attentive to their needs grows. You will also learn how your influence affects others and gain a new sense of understanding of how you fit into the world in relation to others.
Empathy Helps You Improve Your Communication.
Increasing your capacity for empathy can help you better understand the unspoken or nonverbal parts of your communication with others. You will gain an improved understanding of the emotional meaning behind nonverbal communication. This skill can also teach you how to best respond to emotionally fueled issues. It will help you find a healthy resolution without too much fighting or controversy.
Empathy Can Reduce Conflict In Your Life.
Understanding where another person is coming from, and thus having more empathy for that person, will help you when a conflict arises. Whether at home, work or with friends, arguments are never fun. In times of conflict, you may find yourself:
- Getting caught up in your side of the argument
- Closing yourself off to what the other person might be experiencing
- Not understanding what the other person is trying to communicate to you
- Feeling attacked
- Disengaging from the person you are arguing with
If you can concentrate on the empathy you have for that person, you may be able to better hear their perspective. A better understanding can help you find a resolution while preserving the relationship you have with them.
Empathy Helps You Handle Negativity.
Navigating through another person’s negativity can be challenging. You may find yourself feeling offended or needing to defend yourself. It is hard to meet negativity from another person with empathy. This is because oftentimes a person who is approaching you with negativity is not showing empathy for you. While it is challenging, you may find it more constructive to interact with the negativity from other people if you can better understand their emotions, fears, and circumstances.
When you understand these three components, you understand the extent to which their negativity is because of you versus the circumstances that are outside of your control. This can help you better communicate your understanding of their perspective, which may reduce the need for negativity. It can also promote teamwork in resolving the issue.
Empathy Helps Soften Other People’s Attitudes.
Empathy can affect how people interact with each other in a number of ways and is especially useful for opening communication. Expressing empathy helps a person feel heard and understood. As a result, they may be open to trying to understand your point of view as well. When you can express empathy for someone else, they may let their guard down and open up. This allows for both of you to be more motivated to work together to find a point of agreement.
What Affects A Person’s Ability to be Empathic?
It is not uncommon for a person to struggle with feeling empathy for others. Most people will struggle with it to varying degrees based on their worldviews and life experiences. The following are common factors that can affect a person’s ability to empathize with others:
- Growing up in a cold or emotionally negligent environment
- Feeling pressure to be perfect or successful
- Often feeling misunderstood, ignored, or disregarded during childhood
- Being taught at a young age that expressing feelings is unsafe
- Viewing the expression and experience of emotions as weak or burdensome
- Having a lack of close and meaningful relationships with others
- Learning that emotions need to be hidden and protected from others
- Having a history of being emotionally manipulated by others
Experiencing any or all of the life experiences on the list above can cause empathy to be challenging. It can even cause a person to not trust or find value in their own feelings. The following are more common challenges with empathy that may affect you at different times, depending on the situation:
Anger tends to close you off from others. This can even be the case with those who you feel are the closest to you. Anger often inhibits your ability to empathize because you are more focused on how you are feeling than how others are feeling. At times when you are angriest, try taking some time to decompress before revisiting the upsetting situation.
Sometimes we shut down rather than feel empathy because it can seem easier. It can be difficult to watch when someone you love is suffering from sadness or pain. It can also be hard to express empathy when you feel that you have to protect yourself. While challenging, these kinds of situations may need empathy the most. When feeling like you need to protect yourself, focus on your points of strength and your boundaries. Find confidence in your ability to take care of yourself, and when you feel ready, try to open yourself up to hear the people around you.
Are There Downsides To Empathy?
It is hard to imagine empathy being a bad thing, but there has been some conversation in the mental health field about the downsides of being an empathic person. Granted these are just thoughts and may apply only to those who take empathy to the extreme, allowing it to inhibit their well-being.
Empathy may hinder rational thinking. Empathy may cause you to become too invested in the feelings and experiences of others. If you lose awareness of yourself in relation to another person’s feelings, you may find yourself over-empathizing. If you become too involved with what someone else is experiencing, your rational or sound reasoning might become impaired. You may struggle to see a situation objectively if you are not mindful of how your empathy is affecting your judgment.
Overempathizing may lead to challenges in relationships. In intimate relationships, relating too much to your partner’s pain can cause an imbalance within that dynamic. This is especially the case if your partner is less in tune with their empathic side. The general give-and-take of the relationship can be thrown off balance.
Too much empathy can cause enabling patterns. Enabling is when you allow and encourage a loved one’s unhealthy behavior by not holding them accountable for themselves. When we over-empathize, we can fall into a habit of making excuses for a loved one or shielding them from consequences. This can worsen their unhealthy habits and prevent their personal growth.
Empathy can lead to exhaustion. Being emotionally in tune with those around you at all times can truly become an exhausting feat, whether it comes naturally or not. You may end up neglecting yourself (physically or emotionally) and become burnt out.
How To Increase Your Empathic Side
Some people struggle with getting in touch with their empathic side. If this is you, perhaps you have thought that you cannot feel empathy. Or maybe you do feel empathy at times, like when you see a poverty-stricken child on the television or experience a close friend who is grieving a loss. Either way, there is room for growth.
For those who feel no empathy, the possibilities for growth are endless. For those who do experience empathy at times, the challenge is to experience empathy in situations where it does not come as naturally. But how do you increase your ability to be empathic? Listed below are a few ways to begin expanding your capacity for empathy.
Empathic people tend to be interested in others, including strangers. They often have a curiosity about other people’s stories, struggles, successes, etc. This doesn’t mean that they are demanding or have an interrogating intention. They tend to inquire from a place of caring and compassion. Talking to people and learning about their experiences tends to provide a broader worldview, allowing for greater empathy.
You can also work on building empathy with your family. If you have a family member or close friend whose worldviews are different than yours, challenge yourself. Try to understand their opinions without accepting them. Ask them questions and express curiosity in their perspective. Start a conversation with the intention just to relate to their point of view. Try your best to not create an opinion or challenge what they believe, just develop an understanding of the way they see things.
Challenge Judgments and Explore Commonalities.
When you are curious about others, chances are you will find many people who are quite different than you. You may also realize there are certain things about others that you do not agree with. While it is common to focus on what you do not agree with, the challenge would be to find what you do agree with (and other areas of commonality). Essentially, looking for what unites you rather than what separates you is a good approach.
The next time you find yourself getting frustrated when disagreeing with someone, challenge yourself to see things differently. Consider what has caused them to have such a different perspective. Ask questions, be open, and remember that understanding another person’s perspective does not mean sacrificing your own. You do not lose a disagreement if you try to find a point of agreement or understanding for their point of view. Instead, you grow and learn about that person and yourself.
People often struggle with empathizing with others when they are too overwhelmed with their life stressors. Stress can be overwhelming, and when you are not using stress management skills you can become consumed with your stress. If you have a mind that is never quiet, empathy might be a difficult skill to cultivate. Working on quieting your mind can help you increase your emotional awareness.
Mindfulness can be practiced in a number of different ways. Meditation may be the first to come to mind, but it is a challenging practice. Meditation can be practiced in different ways, like guided meditation, grounding meditation, and meditative movement.
Even with different types of meditation, it may not be for everyone. Other practices that promote mindfulness include exercise, increasing awareness of what you are doing in the moment, and being more present and intentional in your day. A mental health counselor and mindfulness groups are great avenues to take when practicing boosting mindfulness.
Listen and Be Vulnerable.
To truly understand and feel compassion and empathy for what someone is experiencing emotionally, you must first be willing to let them tell you. To actually hear the other person, you must learn how to sincerely listen. This is followed by your ability to open up to that person and be vulnerable yourself. Revealing your feelings and emotions is a great way to help the other person feel comfortable and will strengthen the empathic bond.
Being vulnerable with others is challenging. It can be uncomfortable and cause you to feel exposed. People often get vulnerability confused with weakness, but you are not weak if you can be vulnerable with others. Vulnerability can be considered a sign of strength. It takes a lot of courage to be vulnerable with others and to allow others to be vulnerable with you. Vulnerability allows you to show a more sensitive side of yourself, which feels intimidating but actually helps other people relate to you and feel more comfortable with you. Vulnerability promotes trust and if there is trust in a relationship, empathy and understanding for one another become easier.
What Empathy Looks Like in Action
Someone acknowledges and repeats back what you are feeling.
“I understand how you are feeling. You must be so scared and anxious.”
Someone is OK to simply sit with you as you grieve a loss.
holding your sister’s hand as she cries about her dog that has just passed away; no words are necessary.
Someone can listen to what you are going through and express a time they experienced something similar.
“I am so sorry you failed that test. I failed a test last year and felt awful.”
Why Teaching Empathy To Children Is Important
Teaching empathy in your home has tremendous implications for your family. Empathic children have advantages that can boost a healthy sense of self that helps them build their social skills. Such advantages include:
- A greater sense of self-awareness
- A higher level of emotional intelligence
- Self-soothing skills
- Tolerance for others
Children who learn empathy early in their lives develop better social skills overall than children who do not learn empathy. Empathy, in short, is an ability to identify and respond to feelings- one’s own or another’s.
Note: People can mix up empathy with sympathy but empathy has greater practical implications. Sympathy is simply acknowledging something celebratory or sad, whereas empathy requires a greater personal connection. It is important to know the difference when teaching a child about empathy.
Common Misconceptions About Empathy
To begin teaching your children empathic skills, it’s important to check in with yourself and survey your own beliefs about feelings and how they affect your ability to empathize as a parent. To teach empathy, you must model empathy. Children are very observant, and seeing any discrepancy between what you practice and what you teach will affect their ability to show empathy to others. This means that not only will you need to show empathy to your children, but you will also need to change how you empathize with others so you can model empathic behaviors when you do not know they are watching.
The following is a list of some of the harmful ways many people who struggle with empathy may view feelings. These kinds of views on feelings can affect your ability to teach empathy to your children. They can also affect your overall parenting style.
All of us fall into one or all of the following views at some point or another. If you find yourself relating to any of the following points do not lose faith in yourself to teach empathy to your children. Reflect on the list of misconceptions below to pinpoint how your thoughts affect your ability to empathize:
Feelings Just Are Not That Important.
Some people believe that feelings are useless. They do not produce anything. They are unpredictable and can cause great disruption. On the contrary, feelings are excellent gauges of our overall well-being.
Suppressing a strong feeling is no different than suppressing a core part of your identity. Feelings cue us into relationship problems, help establish a greater connection with others, and can be the impetus for much creativity. Most importantly, feelings are just a part of being human. No matter how rational you might be, your logic does not preclude you from feeling. If you do not pay attention to your feelings, you may end up hurting and alienating people.
To correct this assumption, allow yourself to find value in your feelings. Develop an understanding of the source of your feelings, and how those feelings have affected how you relate to others. In your home, promote a safe space for feeling. Practice validating the feelings your children have and work with them to resolve their big feelings.
Feelings Have Value Judgments.
Feelings are different than judgments. They aren’t bad or good; they just are. The way we respond to our feelings matters. You may have found yourself judging your feelings in one of the following ways:
- Good or bad
- Warranted or unwarranted
- Wanted or unwanted
- Valid or invalid
- Justified or unjustified
- Important or unimportant
- Needed or unneeded
- Useful or useless
- Helpful or unhelpful
- Should be or should not be
The reality about feelings is that they hold value, otherwise they would not exist. When you simplify something as complex as feelings, you end up invalidating yourself and your need for support. You may even find yourself using the same patterns of judgment on how other people feel, which greatly impacts your ability to empathize.
To boost empathy in your own life, allow your feelings to be present and valid. If you feel it, it matters. Intend to understand your feelings, not judge them or decide whether they should be there. Your feelings cue you into the state of things. Listen to your feelings and decide how it needs to be addressed.
Example: Some folks who have issues with sadness may hear things, like “Don’t be sad!” These messages can come from themselves and their families. The pressure that is felt from thoughts like “You need to be happy!” Sends a harmful message. This approach to feeling sad equates to “Sadness is not allowed, when things are sad, things are bad. Just deal with it and move on.”
Parents with this mentality may have developed habits like punishing their children for displaying their feelings. Uncomfortable feelings that are not allowed to be expressed will be expressed in other ways, like sadness, irritability, and rage. Not allowing your child to express how they feel prevents them from learning how to cope and causes them to act out. Instead of punishing the feeling, confront the feeling, give it value and meaning, and focus on correcting the unwanted behavior. These moments can also be used as teaching opportunities for healthy coping skills for uncomfortable feelings.
My Feelings are Reality.
Your feelings help shape your reality and your perception of how the world works. Sometimes, our feelings consume us and we begin to see reality only through the lens of our sadness or anger. Remember that feelings do not need to dictate our world or the worlds of our children.
Just because someone feels angry doesn’t mean everything is wrong. Just because someone feels sad doesn’t mean everything is hopeless. Pay attention to your feelings and learn how they affect your perception of reality. Develop a practice of seeing things objectively, and seeing your feelings as responses to objective reality. Allow your feelings to be present without making them dictate your behavior. Model for your children healthy methods of managing and expressing emotions without becoming reactive.
Feelings Are Burdensome.
Some people believe that feelings should just be coped with alone and not shared or expressed. At some point, they may have learned that asking for support is burdensome and that you should not become an emotional burden to others. The reality is seeing feelings as shameful and burdensome prevents healthy coping skills, like:
- Asking for support
- Expressing needs
- Asserting boundaries
- Building healthy and supportive relationships
- Feeling comfortable with vulnerability
Instead of developing coping skills, people who see their feelings as burdensome develop unhealthy coping skills. Some types of unhealthy coping skills that can be developed include:
- Shaming yourself for your feelings
- Judging others for their feelings
- Lashing out at people
- Using anger as a means of self-protection
- Bottling up emotions
- Minimizing your needs
Each of these unhealthy coping skills can impact different areas of life, like your self-esteem, sense of self-worth, and ability to manage your feelings and behavior.
Many children who were told to cope or experience feelings privately come to learn as adults that feelings and needs are not as important as the feelings and needs of others. In turn, they learn that they are less important than others. An important practice for a parent to use to teach empathy is to show empathy. Express interest in how your child is feeling. Guide them through a method of self-reflection. Ask them questions about what made them feel the way they feel, and remember that feelings are not logical, and you cannot dictate how they should be feeling. Work with them, empathize with them, and help them learn healthy ways to cope with big feelings.