“Go sit in time out. Think about how you made them feel. How would you feel if someone did that to you?”
“I understand you exactly. I’ve been there before and know what you’re going through. You can always talk about it with me. I’m here for you.”
We all have heard a form of these two statements through one point or another along the journey that is growing up. They share one of the first concepts you learn when you are little, and one of the best things to hear when you are upset. Comprehending someone else’s emotions is a key standpoint to help improve your sense of self through your development as a person. I think about this principle, known as empathy, as a vital strength for success throughout society that is greatly under-appreciated.
It’s important to recognize empathy for what it is. Many mix up the word with sympathy, and thus give it a “weak” or “soft” connotation. These are very different principles that even activate distinct and separate areas of the brain.
Sympathy: “fellow feeling”; feeling pity or sorrow for one’s situation.
Empathy: “feeling into”; seeing another’s situation as if it was your own.
Sympathy is feeling pity or compassion for a person. You don’t really understand or relate to one’s hardship, but you acknowledge it and wish it could be fixed. On the contrary, empathy allows you to see from someone else’s point of view. You understand why they feel the way they do. It resonates with you.
The Empathy Deficit
Issues throughout the world have brought about a series of questions on how, we, as individuals, communities, and countries, make decisions that impact others, and what morals or lack thereof influences decisions. In 2006, Senator (now President) Barack Obama, spoke of an “empathy deficit” that the country, and world, is experiencing. He stated, “You know, there’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit—the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us—the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid-off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. When you think like this—when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers—it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.”
The President had a point for all to hear. Empathy is a vital part of emotional intelligence that allows us to use intrinsic thought to comprehend basic extrinsic emotions; to better understand how people around us think differently, and why they feel the way they do, even though we may not have the same thought processes.
In a society lacking empathy, a lot can go wrong. Now, we’ve all had arguments with people who refuse to see your side. They’re “right” and refuse to acknowledge your point of view. It can ruin friendships and jobs, while providing for a net loss of respect. As frustrating as it is, this is only a lack of empathy on a personal scale.
In more serious cases, devastating tragedies can occur. Take for instance, though extreme, the Holocaust. In a society that trained to throw away all signs of empathy towards victims, for being regarded as “soft,” many, many people suffered. In addition to the lack of empathy were those populations which stood by and did nothing. It was better to turn a blind eye, because it may not have involved you, than it was to fathom what the not-so-lucky ones were experiencing and realize that no human being should have to endure such a monstrous event. However, those who were able to empathize and help for what they could do, were remembered with great honor. It’s a tragedy that this principle was not more widely spread; that we do not have more of these “heroes.”
On a lighter note, now we have the opportunity to look back on such historical events and learn from them. We can see why someone would want to flee their dangerous country in search of a safe family haven. We can see why someone would feel alone if they were discriminated against. We can see why empathy in a society is so important and how we can use it to better ourselves as a community. We can even use it to better ourselves in everyday life.
Empathy is a skill I value. As time goes on, communication is more and more vital in this ever-so connected world, and empathy is the tool that will let some fly higher than others. It allows for strong and trusting foundations of relationships. It allows for teamwork skills. It allows you be a supportive follower. It allows you to be an effective leader as to understand how to inspire those around you. It even allows you to increase the quality in the relationships held closest to you.
Sometimes I wonder how different society if some of us practiced a little more empathy here and there. Maybe crucial decisions would be made differently if we just considered other people effected more often. I think that maybe we would all be happier, but that’s just me.