Lately, I’ve had many patients ask how they can be a better spouse, better sibling, and/or better friend… Let’s dive into what empathy is and how we learn to “walk a mile in my shoes.”
What is empathy?
Empathy is the simple experience of another individuals’ thoughts and feelings from his or her point of view, rather than from one's own. Empathy facilitates prosocial or helping behaviors that come from within, rather than being forced, so that people behave in a more considerate manner. Empathy is opposite of sympathy, which is the ability to cognitively understand a person's point of view or experience, but without the emotional connection. It should be distinguished from compassion, as they are different terms, even though they are often used interchangeably. Compassion is an empathic understanding of a person's feelings plus a desire to act on that person's behalf. There are individual differences in empathy between each of us, and there are certain conditions in which empathy is blunted or non-existent. Psychopaths are capable of empathic accuracy, or correctly understanding thoughts and feelings, but they have no experiential referent: a true psychopath does not feel empathy.
What are some key aspects of empathy?
Have you ever heard the phrase, “walk a mile in my shoes” let’s decipher what that saying is really saying. Basically, imagine that you are in another’s situation, walk in their shoes, take in the context, and apply your understanding of the perspective to what it would be like to be the other person. Empathy asks us to think about another person’s life circumstances in order to share feelings and understand that other person. Most of us know what we want, how we want to be treated, and what it takes to keep us safe and healthy. But why don’t we see those things when we look at other people’s lives? Well, because we as individuals struggle with empathy. Empathy can be really hard – it takes effort, insight, and a strong understanding of one’s own feelings to be able to step outside ourselves and consider the feelings of other people; it also takes learning and practice by each of us to be empathic. Empathy can be hijacked by fear, we are born with tools for empathy, but we need to learn how to use them. When we fully tune in to another person and are practice empathy, we simultaneously engage in a variety skills:
We have physical reactions that involve replication of others’ actions and emotions
We are aware of our personal boundaries that tell us that the feelings and actions we are sharing ultimately belong to the other individual
We are able to imagine what life is like for someone else by visualizing their experiences and stepping into their lives to see the world through their eyes – “walking a mile in my shoes”
We do all of thee things mentioned above, while filling our emotional harmony, keeping our own emotions even and not letting the other person’s actions and emotions overwhelm us.
Empathy gives us healthier ways to communicate, can encourage people to engage in positive social behaviors, reduces the misunderstandings of others, and on a larger scale, can lessen group animosity. Therefore, acquiring empathic skills can benefit people as a whole and our larger society.
We are born with certain foundational abilities that help us engage in these skills and others we learn over time. Putting all these skills together is something we must learn and it takes practice throughout our life to do so. Learning these skills is also associated to our developmental life stages, so we cannot be good at empathy without the development of certain key abilities that emerge as we age. Did you know that babies are born with the ability to mimic other people? Interesting right?! Research has recognized among newborns the contagious effect of crying when hearing other babies cry. This ability and other skills at mimicking others are early evidence of mirroring, the unconscious imitation we see in brain neural activity. With mirroring we see the actions of others and our brain reacts as if we are actually doing the activity ourselves. This type of ability actually sets the stage for learning empathy. It takes into the toddler years to begin to differentiate between others and us. By the middle of the second year of life, focus on the self widens and the skill of self-other awareness emerges as toddlers mature – they can begin to recognize that distress belongs to someone else. This usage of empathic responding has been documented in children as young as two years old and then develops into a stronger ability with age. Having such self-other awareness is essential when taking the perspective of others. We need to know that we are separate from the other person, although we are feeling their feelings or experiencing what they are experiencing. We begin to learn this skill as a child, and it continues to evolve throughout the developmental years. An additional important skill involved in empathy is emotion regulation, have you heard this term before? Well it is the ability to temper our own feelings when experiencing or sharing the feelings of others. Developmentally, we see this skill evolve through adolescence as the brain’s prefrontal cortex and cognitive functions mature. In addition, adolescence is a time of deepening perspective-taking and greater self-awareness, both critical abilities involved in empathy.
Stepping into empathy as an adult
By young adulthood, we can develop all the necessary tools for empathy. We can tap into our cognitive understanding of what we are physically sharing with others and figure out what the meaning might be of the other person’s actions or experiences. However, deeper learning and understanding still takes a lot of time. As we become adults, deeper learning and understanding involves making the choice to actually do so. With age grows our empathy for others. Over that time, we gather new and insightful experiences that expand our understanding of others. Unfortunately, we can also choose not to explore new magnitudes of life, and that can have the effect of diminishing our empathic abilities. Extending ourselves to try new things, meet new people, and visit new places can expose us to others who are different. This expanded exposure contributes to building greater empathy.
Empathy as we age
As many great things take time to come full circle, embrace the fine-tuning that comes with age. Explore differences between yourself and others; imagine what life is like for them. Learn about their personal history and the historical journey of the groups they are part of – Such as, how did they get to be the person they are today? And then use that information and insight to explain how we might seem different, but in fact are so often the same. You can learn about others, and in turn learn about yourself. That is the gift of empathy, it gets better with age and you can make it a part of your life forever.
Laine E. Davis, PsyD
Postdoctoral Psychology Resident
Blair H. Mor, Psy.D.
Supervising Licensed Psychologist
Owner at MorMindful Therapy & Psychiatry