What is empathy?
Empathy is the emotional ability to understand what others feel, see things from their point of view, and imagine you in their shoes. It’s basically putting you in the other person’s shoes and feeling what they must be feeling.
When you see another person suffering, you can immediately picture yourself in the other person’s shoes and feel sympathy for what they are going through.
While people are often quite attuned to their own feelings and emotions, getting to know others deeply can be a little more difficult. In other words, the ability to feel empathy allows people to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”. It allows people to understand the emotions others are feeling.
For many people, seeing another person in pain and responding with indifference or even complete hostility can seem confusing. But the fact that some people react in such a way clearly demonstrates that empathy is not necessarily a universal response to another’s pain.
Signs of empathy
There are several signs that you tend to be an empath:
- You are good at really listening to what others have to say.
- People often tell you about their problems.
- You are very good at embracing the emotions of others.
- You often think about how other people are feeling.
- Others look to you for advice.
- You often feel overwhelmed by tragic events.
- You try to help others who are suffering.
- You are good at talking when people are dishonest.
- Sometimes you feel exhausted or overwhelmed in social situations.
- You care deeply about others.
- You find it difficult to set boundaries in your relationships with others.
Having a lot of empathy makes you care about the health and well-being of others. However, it also means that you can sometimes get overwhelmed, exhausted, or even overstimulated by thinking about other people’s feelings all the time.
There are different types of empathy a person may experience:
- Emotional empathy involves the ability to understand the emotions of others and respond appropriately. Such emotional insight can make someone feel anxious for the well-being of others or can lead to feelings of personal distress.
- Sympathy soma involves having a kind of physical response in response to what another person is experiencing. Humans sometimes physically experience what others are feeling. For example, when you see someone else feeling embarrassed, you may start to blush or have a stomachache.
- Cognitive empathy involves being able to understand another person’s mental state and what they might be thinking in response to a situation. This involves what psychologists call the theory of mind, or thinking about what other people are thinking.
While sympathy and compassion are and are related to empathy, there are important differences. Compassion and empathy are often thought to include more of a passive connection, while empathy typically involves a much more active effort to understand the other person.
Humans are certainly capable of selfish, even cruel behaviour. A quick scan of any daily newspaper quickly reveals countless acts of evil, selfishness, and cruelty. The question is why don’t we all engage in such self-serving behavior all the time? What makes us feel the pain of others and respond with kindness?
There are several benefits of being able to experience empathy:
- Empathy allows people to build social connections with others. By understanding what people are thinking and feeling, people can react appropriately in social situations. Research has shown that having social connections is important for physical and psychological health.
- Empathizing with others helps you learn to regulate your own emotions. Emotional regulation is important in that it allows you to control what you are feeling, even in times of great stress, without becoming overwhelmed.
- Empathy drives helping behaviors. Not only are you more likely to engage in helpful behaviors when you feel empathy for others, but others are also more likely to help you when they feel empathy.
Not everyone experiences empathy in all situations. In general, some people may be more naturally empathetic, but people also tend to be more empathetic towards some and less empathetic towards others.
Several different factors play a role in this trend including:
- How people perceive each other
- How people attribute the behavior of other individuals
- What people blame for other people’s predicament
- Past experiences and expectations
Research has found that there are gender differences in the experience and expression of empathy, although these findings are somewhat mixed. Women score higher on empathy tests, and studies show that women tend to feel more cognitively empathetic than men.
At the most basic level, there are two main factors that contribute to the ability to experience empathy: heredity and socialization. It essentially sums up the relatively old contributions of nature and nurture.
Parents pass on genes that contribute to overall personality, including propensities for sympathy, sympathy, and compassion. On the other hand, people are also socialized by parents, peers, community and society. The way people treat others and the way they feel about others often reflects beliefs and values that were instilled at a very young age.
Barriers to empathy
A few reasons people sometimes lack empathy include cognitive bias, personification, and victim blaming.
Sometimes the way people perceive the world around them is influenced by some cognitive biases. For example, people often attribute other people’s failures to internal characteristics, while blaming their own shortcomings on external factors.
These biases can make it difficult to see all the factors that contribute to a situation and make people less likely to see a situation from someone else’s perspective.
Many people also fall victim to the trap of thinking that other people who are different from them also don’t feel and behave the same way. This is especially common in cases when others are physically distant.
For example, when they view reports of disaster or conflict abroad, people may feel less empathetic if they think that the people who are suffering are fundamentally different from them.
Blame the victim
Sometimes when someone else has had a terrible experience, people make the mistake of blaming the victim for their situation. This is why victims of crime are often asked what else they could have done to stop the crime.
This tendency is rooted in the need to believe that the world is a just and just place. People want to believe that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get – which makes them think such terrible things can never happen to them.
History of empathy research
Duration empathy was first introduced in 1909 by psychologist Edward B. Titchener as a translation of the German term einfühlung (meaning “feeling into”). Several different theories have been put forward to explain empathy.
Studies have shown that specific areas of the brain play a role in how empathy is experienced. More recent approaches focus on the cognitive and neural processes behind empathy. Researchers have found that different regions of the brain play an important role in empathy, including the prefrontal cortex and anterior lobe.
Research shows that there are neurobiological components that are important to the experience of empathy.Activation of mirror neurons in the brain plays an important role in our ability to mirror and mimic the emotional responses people would feel if they were in similar situations.
Functional MRI research has also shown that an area of the brain known as the lower frontal gyrus (IFG) plays an important role in the experience of empathy.Studies have found that people with damage to this area of the brain often have difficulty perceiving emotions conveyed through facial expressions.
Some of the earliest discoveries on the subject of empathy focused on feeling what others felt allowing people to have a wide variety of emotional experiences. Philosopher Adam Smith suggests that empathy allows us to experience things we may never be able to fully feel.
This can involve feeling empathy for both real people and imaginary characters. For example, experiencing empathy with fictional characters allows people to have many emotional experiences that would otherwise be impossible.
Sociologist Herbert Spencer proposes that empathy serves an adaptive function and supports species survival. Empathy leads to helping behavior, which is beneficial to social relationships. Humans are naturally social creatures. Things that support our relationships with others also benefit us.
When people experience empathy, they are more likely to engage in pro-social behaviors that benefit others. Things like altruism and heroism have also been linked to feeling empathy for others.
Tips for Practicing Empathy
Fortunately, empathy is a skill that you can learn and strengthen. If you want to build your empathy skills, there are a few things you can do:
- Work to listen to people without interruption
- Pay attention to body language and other types of nonverbal communication
- Try to understand people, even if you disagree with them
- Ask people questions to learn more about them and their lives
- Imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes
A very good word
While empathy can fail at times, most people can empathize with others in a variety of situations. The ability to see things from another person’s perspective and empathize with the emotions of others plays an important role in our social lives. Empathy allows us to understand others and, quite often, forces us to take action to alleviate the suffering of others.
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