Empathy is a very important aspect of Emotional Intelligence under the Social Awareness domain.
I Would like to start today’s blog with my own example of childhood (I think it was in my 5th standard). It so happened that my mom had returned from the hospital along with my elder brother after treatment for her frozen shoulder. She was injected with a pain killer and was feeling some giddiness and hence went to sleep as I came back from the school. I like any other child who was so used to getting ready lunch, that I got very upset with my mother that how come today she did not keep my lunch ready. I was so consumed with myself, that I was not able to understand her feelings and the pain that she was going through at that point in time. Those self-centered thoughts masked my mind totally to think, feel for her, have that love and compassion for her. I was very angry but thankfully did not utter a single word. It took some time for me to get over that guilt as I grew older and got more mature.
One more not so good memory which I have from childhood is about some of my friends (elder by 5-6 years to me) from our building where we stayed. These people would enjoy having fun at the cost of causing pain to animals. The moment they noticed a pig or a stray dog on the road, they would pick up a fairly big stone and try to aim at the stomach of the poor animal. If they were spot on with their hit, all would burst into laughter. This was sheer cruelty I thought on their part. (needless to say, I kept myself away from them within no time). Such cruel, empathy fewer tendencies I think come from not nurturing the natural empathetic gifts God has given to all children. The crux of the story is people who have no feelings/empathy/compassion for animals may find it difficult to have the same with human beings as well.
Empathy is inborn in all children. E.g. I remember many years back one of our neighbors’ elder daughter would rock the cradle for her younger sibling and would say “baby crying” when asked why she was doing it. I have already given an example of my niece in my blog – What is emotional Intelligence?
Empathy is thought of like a feel-good emotion. Many people think that being kind and having emotional sensitivity and being caring towards others, is being empathetic. It, however, is not limited to only all of the above. Empathy has the power to transform our lives and can bring about social change.
Empathy is very loosely defined as the art of getting into the shoes of the other person. However, what does that exactly mean? The essence of empathy is thinking from the other person’s point of view, understanding their feelings and perspectives before reacting in a particular way which many a time is based on our own judgments, prejudices and without much impulse control.
Empathy is often confused with sympathy but is distinctly different than it. Empathy is not showing any pity or mercy or feeling sorry for somebody as in sympathy. Empathy is also not the same as the Golden rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. This means that, treat people with concern and kindness you would like them to be shown towards you. The Golden rule assumes your interests meet with theirs. However, empathy is about selflessness and going about understanding others, irrespective of their behavior towards you. It’s like having a firm belief that ‘for every reaction, there is a positive intention from that person’. Due to this, George Bernard Shaw tweaked the above golden rule as under ‘Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you- they might have different tastes. Empathy is all about discovering those different tastes.
Over the past so many centuries thinkers and psychologists have hammered into our brains that human beings are primarily self-interested, self-centered creatures only pursuing individualistic goals and desires. However, neuroscientists have identified an empathy circuit in our brain, which if damaged can severely impair our capacities to understand how others are feeling. They concluded that in general all people are born to empathize except for people who are psychopaths. Most of us use our empathic brains every day. E.g. when a colleague of yours feels the nerves/is very anxious just before a very important presentation, you will comfort her by giving a glass of water, asking her to take 3-4 deep breathes, giving her some other tips like taking some time to start after reaching the stage/podium and other reassuring measures. You just don’t preach her that “don’t take tension, everything will be ok, you will rock, etc” Or when you see a beggar getting drenched in pouring Mumbai rains and shivering because of it, you will give him something say a plastic cover or you umbrella to protect his body from rains, rather than just pitying him (that’s sympathy).
Sympathy actually, is used when you are trying to feel sorry for the other person without understanding what he/she is going through. Not that sympathy is totally useless, it just depends on situations. Typical sympathy statements include, “I felt sorry to hear the sad demise of your husband” or “I am extremely sorry to hear that, your son met with an accident”. In Empathy, you are not part of the problem, so you can detach yourself and become part of the solution. Typical empathy statements are “you are feeling sea sickness, let me get some cold towel and a tablet for you, you will feel better” or, “You must be tired and hungry after a long day at the office, let me get some cold drinking water and tea/snacks for you”
After having understood the difference between empathy and sympathy, let’s see what are the benefits of having empathy:
- As Steven Covey put it, ‘empathetic communication’ is one of the keys to improving interpersonal relationships.
- Empathy can re-establish the bond in broken relationships.
- Empathy can deepen our bonds in friendships and helps in establishing new ones.
- Empathy improves creative thinking, without which we would remain oblivious at problems and perspectives.
- Empathy can give a totally new dimension to the way we look at our assumptions and prejudices as we see things through the eyes of the other person.
- It also gives us new ways of thinking about priorities in life.
If there are so many benefits of being empathetic, why do we use it so very less?
Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote ‘A sign of health in the mind is the ability of the individual to enter imaginatively and accurately into the thoughts and feelings and hopes and fears of the other person; also, to allow that person to do the same to us.
Yet, if empathy was so important and useful for mankind, why do we use it so sparingly? The following are some of the barriers to empathy:
- Prejudice: It is our tendency to label and judge people based on our past experiences about that person, different situations, our experiences with other people, etc We are quick to make assumptions and prejudices about others. We are prone to make stereotyping and making snap judgments based on first impressions and jump to conclusions while knowing very little about what the other person is going through. This tendency masks us to come out of our self-centered, and self- important mindsets. We are too engaged in our own perceptions about people that we fail to appreciate others’ and with these labels we criticize them and which again masks us from appreciating their humanity and uniqueness or personal stories or the situations they were in.
Most times it is the question of having impulse control on self, but we have too much faith in our instincts. However, our instincts can be easily influenced by assumptions gained from society and the cultures we come from. If we reflect upon ourselves and just try to recollect the incidences, we can conclude that we totally erred about somebody because we were looking at them through the eyes of prejudice and stereotypes.
I was guilty of being judgemental sometimes during my working period until not so long ago. As a team leader, we use to have an internal weekly sales meetings on Saturdays and I had kept it very strict for my team members to be on time at 8.30 Am when we would start. If any person was late even by a minute, I would ask that team member to donate Rs.100/- as the penalty in the box kept especially for that purpose, which would then be given for the charity. While the intention of charity was good, I failed to see that people could have problems at home as someone was sick, PTA meetings at school, etc. I would just label the other person as in-disciplined.
- Distance: We tend to be less empathetic to people who are far away from us. E.g. I may feel for the person very next to me or in my city, however, may not have the same empathy for a child starving in say, Somalia. That is where we Indians have a deeply rooted culture of “Vasudeva Kutumbakam” which means that the whole world is one family. And within the family, we don’t have differences in the intensities of empathy and love. While we still firmly believe in this philosophy, it may seem to some too idealistic in today’s world.
Distance in empathy parlance is not limited to geography. Social distance may also act as a barrier to empathy. We may have a bias towards empathizing with people who are having the same educational background, religion, or caste. We may not be empathetic with our next-door neighbor if he /she does not belong to ‘our’ category. The key here is to avoid this discrimination. Highly empathetic people make conscious efforts to look through the eyes of strangers and people who are outside their groups.
Another distance that is a barrier to being empathetic is our relationships. We care for our blood relationships like our children, even grandchildren more than people outside of our family. Normally, it is our own family (Spouse, kids, and parents) who get our empathy by default, then comes our friends, relatives and lastly the society at large, in that order. We also tend to forget this skill when it comes to thinking about 2-3 generations ahead of our race, else how do we explain sheer apathy towards global warming.
- Insensitivity: We have been bombarded with so many negative news daily by the media e.g. children starving, rapes happening in our country, genocides, mass massacres happened in the past, etc that we have become comfortably numb and we don’t feel anything for those who are suffering. In psychological terms, this is called ‘compassion fatigue’ or ‘empathy fatigue’. All around there are depressing news and stories coming from across the world.
So, why do we ‘turn a blind eye’?
Perhaps, we feel guilty of living a lavish lifestyle in contrast to the people who are suffering. Sometimes we just turn away to admit that somewhere we also might be responsible (albeit indirectly or even through our acts or neglects). We conveniently convince ourselves of not taking actions to relieve the suffering of others. Say, e.g. if there is a high problem of floods in areas of Bihar, West Bengal and UP we reason that ‘anyway what difference my small contribution is going to make for such a high calamity’ or we shy away from donating any money giving an excuse that government officials and NGOs might misuse it.
Highly empathetic people are self-aware that such reasoning/excuses will relieve them of their social, moral responsibilities and guide themselves against it. They recognize that these barriers are a result of culture, society, politics and which are against our normal human nature. This means that we as individuals and societies can find ways and means to challenge these barriers. We can choose to engage ourselves with the sufferings of others rather than deny them while looking inside us for strength, integrity, and curiosity to avoid insensitivities.
We will discuss some ways on how to get more empathetic, in the next blog…. Stay tuned….