Most people would probably agree that our world needs empathy.
The dictionary defines empathy as the action and the capacity of understanding, being aware of, and being sensitive to the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another person.
As humans we are wired to be empathetic because we can feel our own pain, thus the pain of other human beings or animals. We can deeply understand their distress. But if we are wired for empathy, why so many people lack empathy?
One might argue that our culture – with its emphasis on mental and technological progress – has cut us off from our emotions and our bodies. We spend most of our time thinking, analyzing and not really listening to the silent messages of the heart and body. Because we spend so much time on our computers and at our desks, we can easily become isolated in our heads, and that means less time in person or within real life communities.
Psychologists talk of three types of empathy. Cognitive empathy is when you can put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. We cognitively understand what they are going through. Though this is important, it is not enough.
Emotional empathy is when you feel and sympathize with the feelings and emotions of others. We need this capacity to maintain relationships and friendships. But emotional empathy can be treacherous for sensitive people. Taking in, into your body, somebody’s else emotions and pain – can cause you to become ill.
I heard a radio host yesterday apologizing for not talking about the tragedy in Texas. She explained it like this… “I feel too much pain. I am in an overload of pain after months of tragedies. I can’t go there.”
Feeling the pain of others is an essential component of good health. But it is important to be able to separate one’s emotions from other people’s emotions. And this can be difficult for a lot of people.
To have healthy empathy, we must transition into Compassion. With compassion we understand and we feel for someone else, but we also understand that we need to stay whole in order to be a healthy and helpful resource for others. Compassion is felt more in the heart. It is an invisible silent thread that is felt between people. We are extending our heart to someone else’s heart.
Compassionate people are in control of their emotions. They can be very helpful in bringing about wise solutions. They are helpful with their sheer and trustworthy presence.
So to increase empathy and compassion, I would suggest to start with yourself.
Ask yourself how much empathy you have for yourself? Are you hard and unforgiving of yourself? Do you feel a lot of guilt all the time? Self-reflect and meditate on yourself often.
Also, remember episodes where you lacked empathy for others? Were you afraid or unware? Always ask why and wait for the answers to emerge from deep silence. There is no need to go into the past. But by remembering your aha moments of your past, you can illuminate your future.
Changing ourselves is a process. The most important thing is to be committed to transformation and to realize that your most important task on this planet is to become more human and to be of service.