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Showing Empathy

To show empathy is to identify with another's feelings. It is to emotionally put yourself in the place of another. The ability to empathize is directly dependent on your ability to feel your own feelings and identify them.

If you have never felt a certain feeling, it will be hard for you to understand how another person is feeling. This holds equally true for pleasure and pain. If, for example, you have never put your hand in a flame, you will not know the pain of fire. If you have not experienced sexual passion, you will not understand its power. Similarly, if you have never felt rebellious or defiant, you will not understand those feelings. Reading about a feeling and intellectually knowing about it is very different than actually experiencing it for yourself.

Among those with an equal level of innate emotional intelligence, the person who has actually experienced the widest range and variety of feelings -- the great depths of depression and the heights of fulfillment, for example, -- is the one who is most able to empathize with the greatest number of people from all walks of life. On the other hand, when we say that someone "can't relate" to other people, it is likely because they haven't experienced, acknowledged or accepted many feelings of their own.

Once you have felt discriminated against, for example, it is much easier to relate with someone else who has been discriminated against. Our innate emotional intelligence gives us the ability to quickly recall those instances and form associations when we encounter discrimination again. We then can use the "reliving" of those emotions to guide our thinking and actions. This is one of the ways nature slowly evolves towards a higher level of survival. In other words, over time, awareness of our own feelings may lead us to treat others in a more pro-survival way.

For this process to work, the first step is that we must be able to experience our own emotions. This means we must be open to them and not distract ourselves from them or try to numb ourselves from our feelings through drugs, alcohol, etc.

Next, we need to become aware of what we are actually feeling -- to acknowledge, identify, and accept our feelings. Only then can we empathize with others. That is one reason it is important to work on your own emotional awareness and sensitivity-- in other words, to be "in touch with" your feelings. -- and to help children stay in touch with their feelings

Awareness & Acknowledgment

Empathy begins with awareness of another person's feelings. It would be easier to be aware of other people's emotions if they would simply tell us how they felt. But since most people do not, we must resort to asking questions, reading between the lines, guessing, and trying to interpret non-verbal cues. Emotionally expressive people are easiest to read because their eyes and faces are constantly letting us know how they are feeling.

Once we have figured out how another person feels, we show empathy by acknowledging the emotion. We may say, for example,

- I can see you are really uncomfortable about this.
- I can understand why you would be upset.

We can also show empathy through a simple sign of affection such as hug or a tender touch. Though empathy is usually used in reference to sensing someone else's painful feelings, it can also apply to someone's positive feelings of success, accomplishment, pride, achievement etc. In this case a "high five" would also be a sign of empathy.

 
Empathy and Sensitivity

In one of the Mayer et al studies, many variables were measured. Of these many variables, sensitivity was found to have the highest correlation to emotional intelligence as they define and measure it. (Selecting a Measure of Emotional Intelligence) It can be assumed that empathy and sensitivity are also significantly correlated. By definition sensitive people are more likely to notice someone else's feelings and to feel something themselves. But even those who are not naturally sensitive, or do not have a high natural level of EI, can take steps to show more sensitivity to the feelings of others.

A basic guideline for showing sensitivity to someone is to not invalidate their feelings by belittling, diminishing, rejecting, judging, or ignoring them. Even just a simple acknowledgment without any real empathy is much better than totally ignoring someone's feeling. (See section on invalidation)

Sensitivity also means being receptive to others' cues, particularly the non-verbal ones such as facial expressions. This is similar to a highly sensitive radio antenna which can pick up faint signals. The more information you are able to receive, the more you can help them and yourself. By the way, a person can never actually be "too sensitive" any more than someone can be too intelligent. It is only a question of how they use the information their extra sensitivity is giving them.

 
Empathy, Understanding and Compassion

Empathy is closely related to compassion, but empathy both precedes compassion and is a pre-requisite for compassion. When we feel empathy for someone we are getting emotional information about them and their situation. By collecting information about other people's feelings, you get to know them better. As you get to know others on an emotional level, you are likely to see similarities between your feelings and theirs, and between your basic emotional needs and theirs. When you realize that someone else's basic emotional needs are similar to yours, you are more able to identify with them, relate to them and empathize with them.

All humans share similar emotional needs. (See human emotional needs) The wide variety among our needs is mostly a difference in degree, rather than in type. For example, we all need to feel some degree of freedom, but one person may need more freedom than another.

Compassion can be defined as a combination of empathy and understanding. Greater empathy gives you greater information, and the more information you have on something, the more likely you are to understand it. Higher emotional intelligence makes possible a greater capacity for such understanding. Thus, the logical sequence is as follows: Higher emotional sensitivity and awareness leads to higher levels of empathy. This leads to higher levels of understanding which then leads to higher levels of compassion.

Haim Ginott wrote that "It takes time and wisdom to realize that the personal parallels the universal and what pains one man pains mankind." Now we might add that it also takes highly developed emotional intelligence.

 
Empathy and Conscience

Those who are not in touch with their own feelings are not likely to have a sense of conscience. They may feel no remorse, no guilt for causing harm to others. As could be expected, studies show that such people are unlikely to respond to rehabilitation.

One thing which could easily cause a person to lose touch with his own feelings and to lose his natural sense of conscience is an extremely painful childhood and adolescence. Such people have experienced so much pain that they shut themselves from it. This pain may have come from physical, sexual or emotional abuse. The end result though is similar. They do not experience their own pain, so they have no compassion for the pain of another. Nor do they have any empathy.

They are also likely to be extremely needy. In other words they have many, and deep, unmet emotional needs. As adults, they will have developed elaborate defense mechanisms in an attempt to block the pain coming from both these unmet needs and from the guilt they would feel if they allowed themselves to feel.

As Freud helped us see, attempts to defend our brains from psychological pain usually involve the cognitive parts of the brain. For example, common defenses are rationalization, justification, denial, intellectualization, moralizing, preaching, proselytizing, self-righteousness, projection, suppression, etc.

In the absence of a conscience, behavior must be controlled by fear, threats and punishment, or by separation from society. This comes at tremendous social cost, and evidently is ineffective, given the overcrowded prisons and rising fines.

It seems that laws are really only needed when conscience has failed. We might say that the more laws a society needs, the less emotionally intelligent.

 
Too Much Empathy?

In one of their 1990 publications Salovey and Mayer hypothesized that there was a positive relationship between empathy and emotional intelligence. Since then their studies have indeed shown this to be the case, (using their test which tries to measure IE). (See Emotional intelligence meets traditional standards for an intelligence.) Still, their definition of EI and their detailed chart of its many aspects does not mention empathy -- something which is a bit puzzling. Upon reflection though, it does seem possible that one could feel too much empathy, to the point where they become overly-affected by another person's moods, for example, in an unhealthy co-dependent relationship.

Therefore, it seems to make sense that while our innate emotional sensitivity gives us the ability to feel empathy, our emotional intelligence helps us decide what to do when we feel empathy and what to do when someone else's moods are affecting us too much.

Even though it may be possible to sometimes feel too much empathy, many people, including the new President of the USA, Barack Obama, believe empathy is something we could use more of in society. In fact it is likely that our human ability to empathize is one of the main ways our emotions contribute to the survival of the species.