“Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’” - Brene Brown
Empathy is something we all agree we need from others and we need to bring to others. But it is hard. Through this blog I want to deconstruct what empathy is and examine the factors underpinning empathy.
What is Empathy
Empathy is a key component of the Emotional Intelligence skill set. Empathy is the ability to understand and feel other people’s thoughts and emotions as if they were our own. It is a part and parcel of our human experience. Empathy can be broken down into three components: knowing another person’s feelings, feeling what that person is feeling, and responding compassionately to that person’s distress.
Empathy and Nature and Nurture:
From a developmental perspective, humans begin exhibiting signs of empathy in social interactions during the second and third years of life. As Dr. Jean Decety shares in her research, “There is compelling evidence that prosocial behaviors such as altruistic helping emerge early in childhood. Infants as young as 12 months of age begin to comfort victims of distress, and 14 to 18 month-old children display spontaneous, unrewarded helping behaviors. In addition, both genetic and environmental factors contribute to the development of empathy and prosociality.”
Which means that while we do inherit empathy genetically, we also learn empathy from the first few years of our life from our primary caregivers. While we have a natural predisposition to developing empathy, social and cultural factors strongly influence where, how, and to whom it is expressed.
Empathy and Distraction
We’re living in the age of distraction. We’re probably the most distracted of all generations in human history. According to research by Ryan Dwyer, "Decades of research on happiness tells us that engaging positively with others is critical for our well being. Modern technology may be wonderful, but it can easily sidetrack us and take away from the special moments we have with friends and family in person."
Another study found that compassionate people spend less time on social media than people who are more self-centered and narcissistic.
In addition, people with lower emotional intelligence, or those who have difficulty identifying, describing and processing their emotions, used social media more often than those who are more in touch with their feelings, according to the study.
Empathy and Self-Absorption
Dictionaries define self-absorption as “being preoccupied with oneself or one’s own affairs to the exclusion of others or the outside world.”
We tend to be self-absorbed mostly when we’re experiencing stress, anxiety or we’re preoccupied. We might also be self-absorbed if we have any personality disorders such as narcissism.
As a society, we’ve undergone a tectonic shift. We’re now about selfies, self-promotion, personal branding, and self-interest. Sometimes this comes at the cost of paying attention to others’ thoughts, feelings, needs, and concerns.
Daniel Goleman explains the connection between empathy and self-absorption beautifully, “Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection - or compassionate action.”
I hope I’ve provided you with some food for thought and possibly ideas for action too. I will close with these wonderful words from Walt Whitman, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”
1) 3 Hacks for Jump Starting Your Emotional Intelligence Now: Rujuta Pendharkar
2) The Neurodevelopment of Empathy in Humans: NCBI
3) Digital Distraction Can Leave You Feeling Distant and Drained: PsychCentral
4) Dealing with digital distraction: Science Daily