Empathy 101

empathy-101-loc It is believed that empathy came into existence after our lineage split off from that of the apes. (Hugging Siamangs at Oakland Zoo, CA | Y S on Unsplash)

em•pa•thy (noun): the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

In the last few decades, the word empathy has been a major focus in psychology and neuroscience. In the last few years, the word has trickled into media and marketing with growing concern of a world facing an empathetic deficit. It's a word whose current definition is less than a century old and, well, it's complicated.1 The definition can be interpreted many different ways and there are different types of empathy.

Empathy is not an emotion and not to be confused with sympathy. Overall, empathy is putting yourself in another person's shoes. Understanding how a person is feeling without your own emotions being involved. It's taking perspective without judgement. It is feeling the same emotion as another without having to experience the event related to it.

So, now you know what it is, but why is it important? Empathy is the foundation of humanity and morality. It's the driver behind the Golden Rule. It is the motivation for charitable and compassionate behaviors. It's needed to establish basic human connection and cooperation. It influences how we act and think in relation to other living things. 

Where does empathy come from?

There is a debate on whether empathy is a skill or an instinctual trait. It's not specific to humans. Animals possess it too, especially dogs and our primate cousins. Some say we are born with it, while some say we learn it as part of our emotional development.

From an evolutionary standpoint, it is believed that empathy evolved from parental care that is a natural part of all mammals.2 It has be assumed that women are naturally more empathetic than men, due in part to the fact that disorders that involve a lack of empathy are prominent in males. However, multiple studies have shown that biological sex specifically doesn't play a part in how empathy is developed.

A 2009 study3 found evidence that empathy may be genetic predisposition in connection with a gene that's a receptor for oxytocin or "love." There are three variations of the gene (AA, AG, or GG) which is received from each parent.Those who possessed the GG variations scored significantly higher on the empathy tests than AG or AA. Basically, some humans are more predisposed to empathy than others, but that doesn't mean others can't learn it. Genetics influence our behavior but can change based on our experiences and learning.

It's a child's social environment from the moment they are born through adolescent that makes the biggest impact on the development of empathy. In order have empathy, you have to be able to understand emotions and be self-aware. Adolescence4 is a time when a person is seeking identity and a sense of self and will showcase empathy and moral capacity when interacting with others. It's how they behave during this stage in life that will impact how they respond to interpersonal relationships later in life. That is why there has been a stronger focus on teaching children about emotional intelligence and empathy in hopes of avoiding personality disorders or negative traits before they become "incurable" diagnoses in adults such as narcissism and sociopathy.

How does empathy work?

Well, it depends on the type of empathy we are referring to, cognitive or emotional.

Cognitive empathy is considered more of a skill. It's knowing what a person is feeling and thinking without actually feeling the emotions involved. It's recognizing that someone is distress, but it doesn't necessarily motivate you to want to do something about it. There has to be compassion involved, which is usually triggered by actually feeling someone's distress.

This is the type of empathy often used in negotiations or leaderships roles. It can also be used as a weapon for manipulation. Sociopaths can use cognitive empathy to manipulate and charm another; that's what makes them so damaging.

When speaking in the terms of lacking empathy in a disorder it usually refers to the lack of emotional empathy that involves directly feeling the emotions that another person is feeling. That triggers personal distress which is what encourages compassion to want to end that person's suffering.

There have been studies5 to show emotional empathy is a rooted in the brain's mirror neurons even though there is still lack of evidence on how it actually works.

When you combine the two types of empathy together, it can make person sensitive to emotional burnout, especially for those who are Empaths, like myself. Empaths are empathic versus being empathetic. We can sense emotions and know how one is feeling without context. We don't have to know the person to understand the underlying emotions. It's an energetic connection more than a cognitive one.

Without empathy, humanity would become non-existent. There would be no charity, understanding, or compassion. We would be toxic to each other, not caring who would get hurt as we try to get ahead in our self-interests. It would be a world full of narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths. If that thought scares you, it should… but that's a blog for another day.

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