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Empathy – The World Needs More Of It

What is empathy and do you practice it?

The Mirriam-Webster dictionary defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” Quite wordy and edited down could read: “The ability of a person to put themselves in the shoes of another.‘”

A joint study by scientists in the U.K., France, and the U.S. described empathy as: “Empathy is the ability to recognize and respond to the emotional states of other individuals. It is an important psychological process that facilitates navigating social interactions and maintaining relationships, which are important for well-being.

There are two different aspects of empathy. Cognitive empathy refers to the ability to recognize another person’s thoughts and feelings. Affective empathy is the ability to respond with an appropriate emotion.

Both are necessary for constructive, ongoing relationships. Sociopaths and psychopaths lack both types of empathy. They also lack any form of conscience; a feeling that most people have that prevents them from carrying out acts of violence and stealing the possessions of other people. Here, I am generalizing and not taking into account crimes of passion, crimes committed under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and crimes committed by the mentally ill.

Again, generally speaking, two people who get along, do so because they recognize the value of a healthy relationship by taking into account the other person’s position and point of view when in conversation or in a discussion. In other words, empathy!

I have found in my 76 years of living that all the people I get along with, have a high degree of empathy. The ones I don’t get along with, do not. Where does that leave me? I like to think I have bountiful empathy for those people I like and respect and little to none for those who commit crimes against the vulnerable and the downtrodden. Am I typical of the average person? I like to think so. It has been reported that people capable of empathy tend to support tough punishment for crime. At the same time, they are less likely to call for harsh punishment, IE, the death penalty.

When I read news stories of priests for example who engage in acts of sexual abuse of children in their care, empathy (and sympathy) fly out the window. Therefore, I see empathy on my part as being entirely selective based on a moral code I have created over the years based loosely on the moral code of the society I live in.

So another question is; does every individual have their own level of empathy?

It has been reported in several studies that individuals capable of empathy have higher self-esteem and enjoy life more fully. The other side of the coin is also true: People who suffer from poor mental health have less fulfilling social relationships invariably have trouble empathizing with others.

There have been many interesting and comprehensive studies carried out on the psychology of empathy, none less so than this study.

The author and philosopher Sam Harris in his book Waking Up discusses the effect meditation has on brain structure. Training in compassion meditation has been shown to increase empathy among those who suffer anxiety, depression, neuroticism, and mental health issues. It also leads to greater behavioral regulation that in turn improves relationships with others.

It has been long known that criminals, particularly career criminals and violent offenders have little empathy. Researchers have more to learn how empathy and perceptions of empathy help to shape crime, particularly the interactions between citizens, both law-abiding and non-law-abiding, and agents of the justice system such as police, judges, and prosecutors. However, policymakers, police and courts, and nonprofit and community groups are now beginning to take useful steps toward these improvements - and more can be done in several key areas.

Empathy can be taught it seems according to psychiatrist and researcher Helen Riess, author of the new book The Empathy Effect. According to Ms. Reiss, we may find it hard to empathize with some people, but that doesn’t mean we can’t strengthen our empathy muscles. She suggests becoming more adept at perceiving the emotions of others, learning self-regulation techniques, and to find ways to encourage perspective-taking.

However, the people she is talking about are people who are already empathetic. The issue is getting through to those who are not.

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Post Image Credit: Nathan Anderson, Unsplash.

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Written by Michael Trigg

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