What if you had no friends?
You would have no one to turn to and cry with, laugh with, share secrets with, go hungry together with, or just be plain and silly you with. There would be a void and empty hollow where a familiar and cherished person should be. As lonely as it looks, there wouldn’t be anyone to empathize with and comfort you in that sadness.
Whenever we go through trials and challenges in life, there will always be people we turn to for help. Depending on what we’re going through, we crave for people to understand because they’ve either gone through the same problem before or are currently going through it as well.
So What is Empathy?
Empathy is often confused with sympathy because both relate to how one person deals with the feelings of another. Before we go on, it’s important to establish the difference between the two to avoid confusion and correct any misinformation.
Being sympathetic means you feel sorry for the suffering or hardships of someone. Being empathetic is feeling what someone else is going through at that particular moment. It’s as if you are in their place, feeling exactly what they are feeling.
Empathizing with someone is bringing to life one of the oldest phrases: “I understand how you feel.”
Empathy is important in relationships. In fact, scientific studies have suggested that those who empathize better have better social relationships. Even American President Barrack Obama has spoken on empathy deficit and why it is important to see the world through others’ eyes.
Empathy is believed to be innate in everyone and it develops as we grow and journey through life. It is indeed one of the best tools humans can use for social change and transformation.
Empathy and the Human Brain
While some believe that empathy is based on the past experiences of a person, scientists believe that it is related to the brain’s processes.
Scientific studies have zeroed in on the relationship between empathy and the human brain. Some have discovered “mirror neurons” which react to others’ emotions and then reproduce them, producing empathy as a result, while others have identified specific parts of the brain that are linked to being empathic.
Researchers from Max Planck have conducted a series of complicated tests to determine how the brain works in relation to empathy.
They discovered that humans tend to be egocentric or self-centred, with no regard for others’ feelings. However, a portion of the human brain called the supramarginalgyrus recognizes this lack of empathy and makes up for it.
It has long been assumed that a person’s experiences develop their empathy. While this is true, this only works when we are in the same boat as that person. If not, our easily adaptable brain uses the supramarginalgyrus once again in order to auto-correct our self-centered tendencies, enabling us to feel as others do.
Additionally, because it is responsible for empathy, this part of the brain helps us to differentiate others’ emotional status from ours — unless we are in a rush to make a decision, in which case it functions poorly, resulting in a lack of empathy.
Intense lack of empathy is a characterization of psychopathy. Research shows that when people with psychopathy visualize other people in pain, their brains act differently from those of regular people. The part that is related to empathy doesn’t activate and it fails to process decisions based on compassion.
Research has also shown that when psychopathic individuals imagine themselves in pain, there is an unusual increase in brain activity in the areas involved in empathy for pain. This suggests that while they react to thoughts about pain, they cannot imagine other people’s pain.
How to Increase Your Capacity for Empathy
A question often asked is if empathy can be learned. And yes, it can! Because we are now more mindful of what empathy is and what it can contribute to any relationship, it is important to take concrete actions to practice stepping into other people’s shoes.
Here are 15 brain hacks we can do to fill our empathy tanks:
1. Practice Loving Kindness Meditation (LKM) or compassion meditation.
This type of meditation focuses on harbouring positive feelings for other people. You just need to set aside a few minutes per day to think loving thoughts about your family, friends, strangers, and even those you’ve hit a rough patch with.
2. Expose yourself to different experiences.
Try new things. You can take a class, go where people converge, or travel to near and far places. Dealing with new experiences means learning to deal with new people and new situations, further opening your mind to new possibilities.
3. Be more sensitive.
Use all your senses when you observe people. Notice the tiny details that give out more honest testimonies than words do. Oftentimes, how a person feels is more evident in the tone of their voice, in their body language, in their reactions and responses, and in their overall disposition. Be wary of the salient cues that tell you more than before you are actually told.
4. Reconnect with people.
Don’t forget to call your parents at least once a day. Don’t forget to greet your friends during birthdays or other special occasions. Simple gestures that convey thoughtfulness strengthen your connections, making you more empathetic to them.
5. Avoid premature judgment.
Judging too quickly will not do anything to help increase your empathy. Rather, try to avoid forming quick opinions on a person’s situation. Not only won’t it increase your empathy, but it could breed conflict in effect.
6. Exercise regularly.
A tough workout can help you be more empathetic to the suffering of other people. It’s like leaving your comfort zone to feel struggles that others experience. It will make you more sensitive to pain while your health reaps the benefits. You can sign up for a gym membership, or you can exercise outdoors or even at home.
7. Talk to strangers.
Greet your doorman or the barista at your favourite coffee shop. You can also strike a conversation with the old lady sitting next to you on the bus. As you expand your social circle, you get to know people from different walks of life and get a glimpse of how they live theirs.
8. Understand yourself.
To understand the emotions of others, it is important that we first know ourselves and how we react to different situations. Distinguishing our reactions from others’ will help us become more empathetic.
While a person whose response is similar to yours will help you relate to them more, knowing how it differs in others helps you widen your mind and appreciate each person’s uniqueness.
9. Don’t rush decisions.
As mentioned above, empathy decreases when we are rushed to make decisions. Take the time to think things over and consider different scenarios. Also, avoid pressuring the person to act.
Those who are on the listening end often find themselves frustrated at the slow or lack of action from the part of the person empathized. You have to remember that being external to the situation makes you think more clearly than those who are directly involved. Each person has a different coping mechanism and follows a different pattern and timeframe.
Remaining patient and understanding and constantly encouraging will help you abate your expectations.
Listen quietly but actively. Ignore distractions and give your undivided attention while keeping an open heart and mind. This will help you focus on the other person better and be more perceptive of the emotions involved.
You can sign up at the local shelter or the nearby retirement home. Volunteering can open opportunities for you to meet people from different backgrounds who somehow need the same thing: support.
Being able to fill a need in a person’s life results in the satisfaction of your own sense of purpose. Little do people realize that empathy does wonders to both the giver and receiver.
12. Borrow someone’s shoes.
Not literally, of course. But maybe you can experiment with living like someone else so you can get a feel for that person’s life.
Try living one day as a street artist, for example, and see the world through that person’s eyes. Though struggling to find money for food and shelter, how can a street artist still come up with mesmerizing artworks? By doing this, you will understand more than just a person’s struggles; you will unlock their strengths as well.
13. Read more books and watch more movies.
When we are exposed to different characters, even though some of them are fictional, we find ourselves thinking or feeling as they do while going through the story. Books and movies give us a chance to dive into the thoughts, beliefs, and insights of other people, thereby providing good exercise for our empathy muscles.
14. Engage in people watching.
Hang out in your favourite coffee shop or at the park and just watch people walk by. Try to observe things about them that might help you decipher what they are currently feeling. Soon, you will get used to these cues and you will be a better listener and empathizer to your peers.
15. Challenge yourself.
This pertains to your biases and opinions. While it is important to have a stance in different situations, being open-minded will help you be more receptive and appreciative of contrasting viewpoints. Just because someone has a different opinion doesn’t mean they are less deserving of your empathy.
This may seem like a long list to work on, but as you can see, you don’t need to do something drastic or extraordinary to be more empathic. Most often, it’s about shifting the spotlight from you to others, focusing on their needs more than your own.
If you think about it, empathy calls upon us to be selfless — not that we think less of ourselves but that we think of ourselves less.
Think about it: If people started minding other people’s business with a genuine desire to help, understand, and encourage, how wonderful would that be? How wonderful would the world be if everyone were to set their personal agendas aside to give way to other people’s needs?
Recalibrate your priorities. Rechannel your energies. Choose to be there for someone, and be there 100%.
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