The origin of Homo Sapiens annotates the concept of “survival of the fittest”, it involves not only the use of dominance as a trait but also being able to understand and respond to others’ pain and suffering. This approach to human existence involves “our capacity to perceive and resonate with others suffering”, and is commonly known as empathy.
This shared pain, sensitivity, and empathy often motivate us to respond with compassion. Here, we will focus on understanding empathy, its importance, and why some people lack it.
Hence, the survival of humankind is dependent on mutual help. Mutual aid and prosocial behavior existed in the earliest reports of tribal behavior and it even remains a powerful force in today’s world, where thousands of organizations and millions of people work selflessly to relieve global suffering, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Empathy can be expressed in three kinds of forms:
- Affective or emotional empathy: Tendency to feel what the other person is actually feeling. Hence, a person with high affective empathy strongly feels the pain within themselves when seeing others in pain.
- Cognitive empathy: Ability to understand and recognize the emotions of others. This does not necessarily mean to experience the emotions as some professionals need to do. For example, a psychologist understands the emotions of his client, but not necessarily shares them.
- Compassionate empathy: It involves feeling the pain for but not with the others, and also taking steps of actions to help.
As a general rule, finding a balance between these three forms of empathy is necessary as different situations demand different kinds of empathy.
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Understanding empathy’s importance:
Empathy is important because it not only helps to understand the feelings of others so we can respond appropriately to the situation, but it also helps to build and strengthen an emotional bridge between you and your close ones.
Furthermore, the benefits of empathy include an increase in communication skills, work-effectiveness, teamwork, improved relationships, happiness, and the ability to cope with stress. It also improves resilience in parents and helps them face the multitude of challenges that arise during parenting.
Obviously, there is an enormous amount of research showing that more empathy leads to more helping behavior. But is it always the case?.
Unfortunately, it’s not, as empathy can also inhibit the consequent helping behavior or action which the individual might take to help others. For example, In a hypothetical case of witnessing a car accident, an individual might become overwhelmed by the surge of emotions due to empathising with the accident victim. This inturn might make him less likely to help that person
Similarly, having strong empathetic feelings for your own family or racial members might even lead to high aggression towards those whom we might perceive as a threat.
Hence, it’s not only important to build empathy skills, but it’s equally important to learn how to regulate our emotions and develop a sense of belonging to a global community instead of smaller ones.
How would you know if you lack empathy?
While some people are aware of their ineptness in empathic skills, some might even be oblivious about the same. Hence, self-awareness becomes the crucial step to see where you are and how much you need to work on yourself. Here are some signs that might help you to identify a lack of empathy within yourself and/or someone else:
- Are quick to criticize others without listening to them.
- Being cold/rude to people who are less fortunate than you.
- Believing that only your ideas and beliefs are true and those who disagree are stupid.
- Experiencing discomfort with being happy for others.
- Experiencing uneasiness in making new friends, as well as, in continuing past and current friendships.
- In a group setting, they mostly like to talk about themselves and they even interrupt others while they are sharing.
- Doing or saying something that somehow hurts a friend and/or a loved one. While they might also have a tendency to shift the blame on the victims.
Why do some people experience difficulty in empathizing?
Empathy is a learned skill, even though it can be said that we are all predisposed to being more cooperative for a better survival. This learned empathy is processed through a shared neural circuit in motor, sensory, and emotional (limbic) areas of the brain. These areas of the brain help us understand and feel the experiences of others, i.e., experiencing empathy, and displaying prosocial behaviour. But people can still have a hard time empathizing with others. This can be due to several reasons including:
- Our capacity for empathy decreases with increased emotional labor or burnout experienced due to overloading of emotions and/or accumulated stress.
- Parenting also plays an important role in developing empathy in a person. Families with an unhealthy caregiver, as well as, fractured parent-child relationship might lead to inept development of empathic skills within the child.
As a result, these individuals might experience feelings of a lack of self-compassion, self-efficacy, and prosocial behaviours.
- Researchers found that we are more likely to empathize with people who are similar to us and belong in the same group and less likely to empathize with people from a different social, political, or ethnic group. This phenomenon is studied in social psychology under in-group vs. outgroup attitudes, feelings and behaviours.
- In cases when other people get punished for their crime or injustice then research even found subjective pleasure and a decrease in empathy within people.
As the Dalai Lama stated, “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries and without them, humanity cannot survive”. Developing empathy is crucial for both societal and individual growth. Therefore, it is always suggested to learn and develop soft skills involving but not limited to: listening skills, perspective-taking, joining common causes, understanding your own feelings and appreciating the differences. You can learn these and other specific strategies in detail to help you build empathy skills here.