The Science Of Empathy

Empathy is defined as the capability to recognize, understand and be considerate to 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 emotions, allowing them the ability to become in tune with others. Chances are you have probably experienced empathy before, even without knowing it. Have you ever identified so personally with what someone is expressing emotionally, that it feels like you are experiencing those emotions firsthand? That is empathy. Yet empathy goes even further. Being truly empathetic is when you 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?

  • Give Loved Ones What They Need – becoming more empathetic will most likely teach you the lesson of “putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.” If you are able to empathize with your loved ones through understanding their personal experiences and pain, you will be more likely to emotionally give them what they need in the relationship.
  • Improved Communication – increasing your capacity for empathy can help you better understand the unspoken, or nonverbal, parts of your communication with others. In essence, you will gain an improved understanding of the emotional meaning behind the nonverbal communication.
  • Decreased Conflict – understanding where the other person is coming from, and thus having more empathy for that person, will automatically help you in terms of conflicts. Whether at home, work, or with friends, arguments are never fun, and you probably get caught up in your “side” of the conflict, blinding you to what the other person might be experiencing. Thus, if you can concentrate on the empathy you have for that person, you may find decreased conflict in your life.
  • Handle Negativity – you may find it simpler to interact with the negativity from other people if you can better understand their emotions, fears, and circumstances.

What Affects One’s Ability to be Empathetic?

  • Anger – anger tends to close you off to those with whom you are closest. It often inhibits your ability to experience compassion.
  • Protection – sometimes we shut down rather than feel empathy because it can seem easier. When people you love are experiencing sadness, pain, or suffering, it can be difficult to watch. Thus, sometimes people shut down.
  • Fear of Intimacy

How To Increase Your Empathetic Side

Some people really struggle with getting in touch with their empathetic side. If this is you, perhaps you have thought you have no capacity to feel empathy. Or maybe you do feel empathy at time, 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 empathetic? Listed below are a few ways to begin expanding your capacity for empathy.

  • Get Curious – extremely empathetic 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 these individuals are demanding or have an interrogating demeanor, rather they tend to inquire from a place of caring and compassion. If you can talk to strangers and learn about their experiences, it tends to provide a broader worldview, allowing for greater empathy.
  • 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 us, rather than what separates us is a good approach.
  • Mindfulness – if you have a mind that is never quiet, empathy might be a difficult characteristic to cultivate. Working on quieting your mind can help you increase your own emotional awareness. Practice maintaining an “empty” mind at five-minute intervals, to strengthen your ability.
  • 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. In order to actually hear the other person, you must learn to sincerely listen. This is followed by your ability to open up to that person and be vulnerable yourself. Revealing your own feelings and emotions is a great way to help the other person feel comfortable and will strengthen the empathetic bond.

What Empathy Looks Like in Action

  • Someone acknowledges and repeats back what you are feeling. (i.e. – “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. (i.e. – holding your sister’s hand as she cries about her dog that has just passed away; no words necessary)
  • Someone is able to listen to what you are going through, and express a time they experienced something similar. (i.e. – “I am so sorry you failed that test. I failed a test last year and felt awful.”)

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 regarding the downsides of being an empathetic person. Granted these are just thoughts, and may apply only to those individuals who take empathy to the extreme, allowing it to inhibit their own well-being.

  • Hinders Rational Thinking – if you become too emotionally involved with what someone else is experiencing, your rational or sound reasoning might become impaired.
  • Unhealthy Relationships – in intimate relationships, if you are relating too much to your partner’s pain, it can cause an imbalance within that dynamic, especially if your partner is less in tune with his or her empathetic side. Basically, the general give-and-take of the relationship can be thrown off balance.
  • 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.

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