What is Empathy?

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Prepare yourself, things are going to get very philosophical in 3…2…1…

Today I saw a graphic, it was a small part of a much longer and generally well written blog post about mindfulness and empathy.  The graphic claimed empathy was seeing through someone’s eyes, hearing through someone’s ears, and feeling with the heart of another.  The quote, originally attributed Alfred Adler, is one that concerns me greatly.  If this is to be our definition of Empathy, how can ANYONE truly develop and experience empathy?

Each of us experiences the world in our own unique way.  We view the world through our lens, one that is shaped by our experiences.  These experiences are uniquely our own.  I cannot truly understand how you experience the world unless I related to something that I have also experienced.  Regardless of whether or not I can relate to your experiences, I certainly cannot share in them in a way that mirrors how you experience them.

The residual quote that comes to mind is, “you can’t judge someone till you walk a mile in their shoes” (insert all jokes about shoe stealing here).  The truth is, even if you wear their shoes, you don’t have their feet!  Empathy is important in helping kids develop a sense of what is right.  How then do we define empathy and, how do we work to instill that value to help our kids develop a strong understanding of virtue?  Why is this important?

Empathy should be defined as being able to relate the presumed feelings of someone else to feelings of your own given any relevant information.  I don’t like getting my foot stepped on, I know it doesn’t feel good for me, thus I won’t step on other feet because I won’t want to cause that feeling in others.  Empathy is an understanding that I feel a certain way when something happens, and thus I do not want to make you feel that way as well.

Why is this an important distinction?  It is important for several reasons.  First, in teaching and developing empathy for our kids.  If the idea is to relate your experiences to someone else’s, you need to have a wide variety of experiences to draw upon.  We build empathy by making the connections frequently.  We model those connections with kids, parents, and staff members, we have those discussions out loud, we help kids make connections between theoretically similar experiences.  By doing that we generate the potential understanding of empathy.

What if kids don’t seem to have or develop empathy?  If kids don’t have the relevant experiences to relate to others, they are going to have a hard time developing empathy.  I see a clear connection between lack of empathy and lack of experiencing something similar.  The question that follows then, is, what do we do if we cannot have the experience base to develop empathy?

The higher level education of empathy needs to include an understanding that I simply cannot have similar experiences to all people.  I cannot be empathetic to someone who experiences certain things, racism, sexism, the death of a child for some examples.  I have nothing within my personal experiences that comes close to those experiences.  The best I can do is recognize that I do not understand those experiences, that they are in many ways beyond me.  We should be teaching kids to relate to others on this higher level.  I cannot be empathetic to people who experience certain things based on my limitations and experiences.  I can however accept those limitations, accept that other people have feelings and experiences that are alien from my own, and that I can accept them without qualification.  No matter how much I read about, talk to, or even witness these experiences, they will never relate closely to my own.  I will never be empathetic, but I can be accepting and supportive.  I can listen and allow others to have such feelings/experiences without projecting myself on them, because I know they are not my own.

Ultimately empathy is a great starting point, but often we talk about empathy as if it were the gold standard in social interaction.  The reality is empathy is very limited.  It is a great starting point in many ways, but we need to teach far beyond empathy.  We need to teach kids to accept others, to recognized and respect differences, and appreciate when a lack of empathy is not only normal, but appropriate.  Only then will kids take a serious step into higher levels of social understanding and acceptance.   All of this starts with an understanding of what Empathy really is, and what it is not.

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3 thoughts on “What is Empathy?

  1. I tried leaving a long comment which was unfortunately not allowed. In a nutshell it suggested steps for getting to “understanding” via thoughtful & heartfelt listening. Tweet me for more details. Thanks for taking this topic on. Much appreciated.

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