Special thanks to Julia Jarzyna for her artwork seen in the cover image.
It’s a word people bandy about in everyday discourse. The word is empathy. But what does it really mean to have empathy, and why is it important? Are there different types of empathy? Are some people completely incapable of it? Can people who aren’t naturals learn to be more empathetic? I believe empathy plays a vital role in our lives and that it is problematic to go through life without it. Not everyone can empathise. It does not come naturally to a great number of people. But I firmly believe that most people can learn to empathise better and that it is not insurmountable. Proponents of reason are not foolish in their valuing of this, but empathy is also important. Too much of either has the potential to lead people to make the wrong choices. Although I agree it is important to have a balance of these qualities, here I will be making a case for why empathy in particular is important. I hope you enjoy it.
Definitions – empathy vs sympathy:
Empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably. And yet they are not the same thing. The academic, Brené Brown, gives a great explanation of the difference in one of her talks on empathy (see the link in the bibliography). She describes empathy as something that ‘fuels connection’, whereas sympathy ‘drives disconnection’. What is meant by this is that sympathy is merely feeling sorry for someone and wishing them well when they are facing a difficulty in their lives. Most people can do this fairly easily. The difference between this and empathy, is that sympathy acknowledges the problem, but refuses to be associated with it (hence the ‘disconnection’), whereas being empathetic requires the person empathising to take on the struggle of whosoever they are empathising with and feel what the other person is feeling. From here, a genuine ‘connection’ between the two people is built.
The best way to illustrate this is the analogy used in the 1960 novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. Atticus Finch, an attorney in the deep South during the era of Jim Crow, instructs his daughter Scout to be more empathetic, saying: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Empathy is a process that requires the person empathising to completely surrender the prejudices and assumptions they might have and to engage in listening mode, so as to fully understand and feel what the other person is going through.
Overt vs Covert empathy:
Empathy is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and feeling what they are feeling. It is rarely questioned, however, whether there is more than one way of possessing empathy. Perhaps empathy is there but is not always expressed. I believe there are two types of ways in which empathy manifests itself. To me, the distinction is simple. Empathy can be overt or covert. Few people would doubt that every human being has the capacity to feel things. We are emotional beings. However, some people are more expressive about their feelings/emotions than others. If a person who is expressive is empathising with someone else, they are likely to be more vocal about it, perhaps even going in to hug the person in distress. Conversely, someone who is more reticent and processes these things internally (perhaps we could even say someone who is introverted) might not be so expressive in terms of their empathy. They feel it just as the more expressive person does, but they may not vocalise it.
Both types of empathy are useful. Overt empathy allows the person to step in and connect with whoever needs their support. Covert empathy allows the person to process what it is like to be in the other person’s shoes and understand their point of view, regardless of whether the person empathising acts on these insights or not. Naturally I will argue that, in the moment, it is best to use of overt empathy to make the person being empathised with feel better. If there is no vocal or physical response to what the person is saying, then they will feel unheard or unappreciated. Nonetheless, without the reflection of covert empathy, it may be difficult to fully understand and appreciate the depth of the person’s suffering. It is of crucial importance that both modes of empathy are developed.
The role of psychological disorders:
Now, I am no psychiatrist or mental health professional. Whilst I am very interested in psychology and what makes people tick, I do not claim to be an expert; I am a layperson. However, there is no doubt in my mind that some people are incapable of empathy, or they suffer from psychological problems that make empathy difficult. The first example that comes to mind is those suffering from personality disorders, especially antisocial personality disorder (APD) and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Both these disorders are characterised by a number of symptoms, but they both have lack of empathy in common. Furthermore, in the case of antisocial personality disorder, some people are born with it (psychopaths) and others develop it through environmental/social conditioning (sociopaths). Something in the brain makes it impossible for these people to empathise, let alone have empathy in the first place. Once again, I know very little about the science behind this and I am just basing this off the general knowledge I have of these disorders.
Another disorder that can impact empathy is an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). Now people who are autistic, contrary to popular misconceptions, can empathise. It’s just a great deal harder to do for someone who isn’t neurotypical. It also depends on the severity of the autism. I have a close relative who is autistic, and he really struggles with empathy, but I have also met people on the autistic spectrum who are very skilled at empathising with others, in some cases better than those who are neurotypical.
The point I am trying to make here is that there are people who are suffering from mental health difficulties and psychiatric disorders who really struggle with empathy, because the way their brain functions makes it difficult for them to do this. They are not necessarily bad human beings; they are just different. Having empathy for these people is important too.
How to be more empathetic:
I’ve spent some time now talking about what empathy is. I have also discussed the different types of empathy and why some people struggle to possess it. Now I want to discuss some ways that one can learn to be a more empathetic person:
1. Appreciate art – Many people consume works of art because it gives them pleasure. Pleasure is an important thing in life but pursuing a hedonistic life philosophy is not exactly the key to building a more compassionate world, let alone one with an abundance of empathy. Just as we feel pleasure as others do, we must also feel their suffering. When I talk about art, I’m not just talking about paintings. I love paintings very much and paintings are good things to appreciate. But what I mean by art is any act of creation that speaks to the soul. Personally, my favourite art form is film. I can learn more about the plight of the suffering and the pain of the anguished through experiencing the lives of characters in a movie than any other art form. Novels are good too. You have to find what works for you. It can be anything ranging from paintings to music, so long as it teaches you to connect with other peoples’ lives.
2. Listen more – I’m prone to not listening as well as one should. I think this applies to many of us. The key to empathy is first knowing what to empathise with. If you don’t listen to what people are telling you, there’s no way you can expect to connect. If you feel that you know it all, or that you can logically solve a problem with a sharp tongue, then you have the wrong mindset for empathy. When you are next listening to someone’s problem, hold yourself back from judgment and surrender yourself to whatever it is people are telling you. Only then will you be able to connect and speak the language of empathy.
3. Reflect – It was Socrates who said, “the unexamined life is not worth living”. For the most part I agree with him. But the sort of reflection I’m talking about in this context does not involve subjecting everything to logical analysis. You can reflect however you wish. You can pray, meditate, or just ponder. So long as you dig deep inside your mind to assess the emotional experience behind what has happened and what has been said, only then will you be able to respond to a problem with empathy.
Why empathy is important:
Think of it this way. If someone you know is going through a hard time, the usual instinct is to make them feel better. For some people, this involves solving the problem, or proposing a solution to the problem. For others it’s about being more tactile and supporting the person in question emotionally. In the majority of cases, when someone is in distress, people just want you to listen. They don’t wish for you to pass judgment or tell them everything is going to be okay. People want to feel heard and cared for. In a time of crisis, empathy is the best solution. If you get inside their shoes and try your utmost to feel as they do, then you have a connection. Without empathy, there is no connection. And for that reason, empathy is one of the most important things one can possess.
Lee, H., (2010). To Kill a Mockingbird. 50th Anniversary ed. London: Arrow.
Plato., (2002). Plato: Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.
The RSA., (10th December 2013). Brené Brown on Empathy. [online] YouTube. [Viewed 16th April 2020]. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw