“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”
~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theologian and pastor killed by the Nazis in 1945
It’s easy for those of us who haven’t been through domestic violence to say we feel sorry for those who have. When the news airs yet another story about an abuser murdering their partner, many of us feel pity as well an uncomfortable sense of disconnected helplessness. After all, it’s one thing to know that close to 12.4 million women and men experience abuse every year, but if we haven’t experienced it personally, it’s easier to ignore.
That’s called a lack of empathy, and some studies show that, as a society, we are lacking in the empathy department as a whole.
At least one recent study suggests college students are focusing more on enterprising careers than helping ones, and were simultaneously less likely to give to charity than previous generations.
Meanwhile, many of us aren’t mincing words online—40 percent of adults online have experienced some type of online harassment and 73 percent have witnessed someone else harassed.
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Unlike sympathy—the ability to say that we care about others’ suffering and wish those in pain weren’t—empathy is saying, “I can feel your suffering.” It’s putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, imagining we are them and placing ourselves in the exact situation they’re in, at least, in our minds.
This is possible through something in our brains called mirror neurons, which mimic the feelings of someone else we come in contact with. Have you ever been around someone sad, only to leave them feeling just as down yourself? That’s empathy. Mirror neurons have been found to be damaged in individuals with autism, which is why they can have a difficult time with empathy.
Sure, feeling empathy can mean opening yourself up to uncomfortable emotions. If you stay closed off to others’ hardships, you can avoid feeling their discomfort. The flip side is that empathy humanizes those around us, helping us to understand where they’re coming from and why they make the decisions they do. Miki Kashtan, Ph.D., co-founder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication, talks about how “becoming” someone else to feel empathy has changed her.
“Each and every time I have done this, my own understanding of what it means to be human has grown. I have some palpable, tangible grasp on what could happen to someone that would lead to acting in ways that previously were completely opaque and mysterious to me.”
It’s also been suggested that teens who are more empathetic are also more purpose-driven and often more apt to succeed since their focus is on understanding the subject at hand instead of learning only to gain a reward, such as acceptance or recognition. Empathetic teenagers also handle failure better because they’ve separated their ego from their pursuit and look at failure as a learning experience, suggests licensed professional counselor Ugo Uche.
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How to Hone in on Your Empathy
Is your empathy a little rusty? Try out these tips for honing in your empathetic side.
1. Listen and Repeat. This seems simple enough, but too many of us listen for a pause in a conversation so that we can start offering our feedback, judgment or advice. True listening means hearing and understanding what the other person is feeling. It helps to reiterate back a summary of what the other person has said. Then, listen for what they need.
2. Forget What You Know. When someone is opening up to you about a hardship, for a moment suspend your own beliefs and ideas about the person’s experience. You don’t have to necessarily agree with them, just resist the urge to tell them how to get over or through their hardship. Often times, the other person just wants someone to hear them out, not fix their problem.
3. Talk to a Stranger. Strike up a conversation with a random person. This is a good follow-up to the above point—by suspending your own ideas about someone, you may be surprised at what you find out. How is life going for the impassioned person who wants you to sign their petition outside the library? Do you really know your child’s shy kindergarten teacher? What’s on the mind of the receptionist at your dentist’s office? You’ll probably be surprised at what you discover.
4. Spend Time Helping Others. What better way to put yourself in someone else’s shoes than to actually put yourself in their shoes? It may mean stepping out of your comfort zone a bit, but go into a soup kitchen, domestic violence shelter or after-school teen program and spend time opening yourself up to experiences that require a heavy dose of empathy. Volunteering is also tied to stress relief, a decrease in depression and a release of dopamine—the feel-good chemical in your brain. One study even showed volunteering improved cognitive (aka, brain) function in older adults.
5. Test Yourself. Can you accurately read people’s emotions just by looking into their eyes? Take the Reading the Mind In the Eyes test and find out.
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