“Learning to stand in someone else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins. And it’s up to you to make that happen. Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.”

-Barack Obama

Empathy: 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.

There seems to be a lack of empathy in today’s world. Just look at the headlines, with both foreign and domestic terrorism on the increase. On top of that, our leaders sure don’t show much of a capacity for it. But what exactly is empathy? Let’s look into it.

With empathy, you feel with the other’s heart, you see with their eyes, you feel with their emotions. It’s about standing in their shoes. It’s opening your heart to the feelings of others. So instead of putting others in their place, put yourself in their place. In a world full of people who couldn’t care less, be someone who couldn’t care more. When we help others, we let them know that there is still love in the world.

Political theorist and philosopher Hannah Arendt said that “The death of Human empathy is one of the earliest and most telling signs of a culture about to fall into barbarism.”

How you make others feel about themselves says a lot about you. Bill Bullard, member of both houses of the Michigan legislature, has this to say about empathy: “Opinion is really the lowest form of Human knowledge. It requires no accountability, no understanding. The highest form of knowledge is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another world. It requires profound purpose larger than the self kind of understanding.”

I mentioned earlier that empathy is like standing in someone else’s shoes, well, that should not be confused with sympathy, which is feeling sorry for their aching feet. So, let’s look at the difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy is experiencing someone else’s feelings, it’s emotional in nature. Whereas sympathy is understanding someone else’s feelings, and is cognitive in nature. Empathy is feeling with someone, while sympathy is feeling for someone. Empathy shouldn’t be confused with pity or compassion either. Pity is – Oh no! you have a cold. Sympathy is – I am so sad that you have a cold. Empathy is – I understand that having a cold is uncomfortable. Compassion is – I want to help you with your cold.

When you show empathy toward another their defensive energy goes down and their positive energy goes up. Research shows a positive connection between how much empathic concern people report feelingĀ  for another person and their willingness to help those people even when helping requires some sacrifice. It’s possible to boost your capacity for empathy, but some think that having too much empathy can be harmful to ones well-being or even to the planet. They believe that too much empathy can interfere with rational decision making, causing people to lead with their hearts rather than their heads. I personally think we should lead with our hearts and stay out of our heads.

Let’s look at the different classifications of empathy. There is Affective or Emotional Empathy; the capacity to respond emotionally to another’s mental state. Then there’s Cognitive Empathy; the ability to understand another’s perspective or mental state. Finally there’s Somatic Empathy; a physical reaction, probably based on Mirror Neurons in the Somatic Nervous System. Mirror Neurons? Neuroscientists are studying the concept of Mirror Neurons, which, they believe enhances the ability to read or mimic emotional signals from facial expressions and body language. These Mirror Neurons may help people share emotional experiences and become more empathic.

Other studies show that empathy isn’t just in the domain of Humans. There are many recorded instances of Dolphins saving Humans from Shark attacks. Cetaceans of all things have three times as many Spindle Cells in their brains as we Humans do. Spindle Cells are the nerve cells that transmit empathy. These Cetaceans are highly social. This means that they may have an awareness of one-anothers feelings, such as they are. Primates have been observed with many empathic behaviors in the wild, and in captivity, with Bonobos being the most empathic. Even rodents have shown an intent to benefit others evoked by empathy. Other animals with the ability to empathize include Dogs and Cats, but we knew that already.

In Humans, children begin to display empathic behaviors by the age of two and have some fundamentals of empathy. Toddlers have been seen to comfort others or show concern at two. And of course females tend to have more cognitive empathy than men.

Buddhism teaches the practice of compassion called Karuna. This is the idea of sharing suffering, having concern for another, but essentially, “feeling for and not feeling with the other.”

In the Bible, the Apostle Peter counseled Christians to have compassion for others; love as brothers, be tender-hearted, and courteous. The Apostle John asked if anyone has material possessions and sees a sister or brother in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person.

We could all do well to grow and become more empathic. In the next blog, I’ll cover just what it means to be an Empath.


May you always be

Healthy, Happy,

Safe, and Comfortable.