empathy (n.) the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
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When very young children watch videos of people getting hurt, pain-related neurons are activated in their brains. Other brain studies find that children between seven and 12 naturally feel empathy for others in pain. Barring brain disease or damage, we all have some variation of the hardware required to connect with others around tough emotions.
All brains are not created equally, so some people have less original capacity for empathy than others; luckily, however, empathy is something that can be learned.
The scientific consensus is that empathy is a necessary and beneficial habit and skill. People who are good at empathy have been found to possess better leadership abilities and happier relationships. An increase in helping behaviors becomes possible – even probable – when we begin to feel with others who need help. Empathy makes it possible for human beings to advocate for and ally with others in important ways. And when we ourselves are struggling with hard emotions, nothing feels as supportive as to have someone empathize with us.
And how often do we dive into empathy? Consider this question for yourself. How often, in a day, do you truly touch in with others who are suffering – people who are close to you, or people outside your immediate circle?
Let’s say a teen describes to me how his father has lost his job and his mother is crying all the time. He tells me how they can only afford one meal a day and that his baby brother goes to sleep weeping.
If I really take all this in – if I put myself emotionally and cognitively in his shoes and feel what his pain might feel like – I might feel drawn to understand things from his perspective. And in doing so, I might encounter a major dissonance between my privileged condition as a homeowner with a good job and his very real economic and emotional hardship. My privilege and success can become sources of shame rather than points of pride.
Shame can be lethal…Shame is the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging. It’s the most primitive human emotion we all feel—and the one no one wants to talk about. – Brené Brown, PhD
In an effort to protect myself against shame, I might push away empathy. I might try to make this teen feel better with shallow statements like “It’s all going to be okay!” or say something cheerful or distracting to try to get him to forget his troubles. Internally, I might deal with my shame by mentally coming to my own defense:
I earned all that I have. I worked hard to get here.
It’s not my fault that this kid’s family is struggling.
It’s not my responsibility to help them.
If I start helping everyone who’s suffering like this, I won’t have anything left for myself.
Of course, I wouldn’t say this to the teen, but I might have to disconnect from him in order to maintain my invulnerability.
Perhaps if this teen encounters this kind of response often enough, he’ll come to resist letting people in and allowing them to experience his most vulnerable struggles. He might come to feel ashamed of his misfortune, his social status or labeling, or even his own complex emotional choices. He might become aggressive and angry instead of reaching out because he has so often met rejection or dismissal in response to honest sharing.
It makes perfect sense that people would dissociate, detach, and defend when faced with a gap in a true feeling connection. Our tendencies to (1) dismiss others’ difficult emotions and (2) puff up against being misunderstood ultimately can be traced back to earnest self-preservation. So, too, can a desire to turn away from others whose actions or ideas we do not understand – another way we resist stepping into empathic connection:
Empathy is seen as threatening because it challenges the notion that other people are inherently different or threatening because they think or act in a way that we cannot understand. We may not be able to feel exactly what another person feels, but we can make an honest effort to understand the context of his/her experiences, and to listen to his/her story firsthand. From this, we can come to a much more developed understanding of what another person is going through, and the fear we once associated with them begins to dissipate. Empathy thus threatens the defenses long held against others, on a personal and political level. – Emily Chow-Kambitsch, PhD, AHA! Past Faculty
Yes, shame and other emotions that can arise when we empathize can feel toxic, even life-threatening. The shame we may feel when acknowledging our privilege or better circumstances can be turned into an action of generosity and altruism. The unbearable sorrow we feel when a close friend is going through a loss can allow us to widen our heart to him or her, and to others going through the same thing. A challenging emotion fully felt passes through us in a matter of minutes, while the same emotion denied and suppressed, turned away from, or condemned as unacceptable can become a hardened wall inside us, blocking both the hurt and the joy of life.
Why bother with empathy? When we empathize, we don’t only feel more connected to our loved ones and communities and to all of humanity; we become people others are drawn to, can love, and would give their lives for. Empathic people are the folks who have the richest and warmest connections with others and know that they matter to this world.
by Jennifer Freed PhD with Melissa Lowenstein MEd