I’ve always considered myself to be an empath. Since I was a child, I could feel what others felt, even when their words said something else. I could tell by their body language or facial expressions that there was something their words were not telling, secrets that they couldn’t or wouldn’t share with the rest of the world. I would often mirror other people’s feelings.
After I was molested at age 3, I stopped talking for about a year, and again at age nine. Both times I spent that year observing people, listening to what they said, watching how they moved, their expressions, how their eyes looked.
It’s said that a person needs to be intimate with another human being in order to feel empathy for them, although this doesn’t have to be physical intimacy, it can be mental or emotional intimacy as well.
I was able to have a sexual relationship with another person, without knowing them or feeling an emotional connection to them. In fact, because of being sexually abused so many times, my emotions totally shut down. I sometimes wonder if I’m even able to love anyone (including myself) since I feel I’m unable to trust anyone. I’m sure there is a lot I hold back about being mentally intimate with another person too.
But that doesn’t mean I didn’t and don’t feel empathy or sympathy for others when they are in pain, or scared, or angry. I don’t believe you need to have in intimate relationship to feel these feelings. I have felt empathy for complete strangers, knowing nothing about their lives, I just knew that they hurt.
An article on Psychology Today made this distinction between sympathy and empathy: “Sympathy is feeling for someone; empathy involves feeling with them.” When I had cancer, I had a lot of people who felt sympathy for me, but very few who felt any empathy WITH me.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines empathy as this:
1 : the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner”, which makes it sound very intuitive but the Psychology Today article says that it’s not intuitive. I tend to disagree with that. In order to understand and feel what someone else is feeling without experiencing it yourself, takes some kind of intuition.
In fact, Tim Minchin says “Empathy is intuitive, but is also something you can work on, intellectually.”
So, is empathy something you are born with, or is it a learned behavior? Apparently, it can be both. And since it can be learned, why don’t more people try?
According to Life Coach Paula Young, many people lack empathy because they were never taught to feel empathy for anyone else. As children they might have been told to be stoic and to hide their emotions, like “boys don’t cry”. They may feel badly about themselves and since they lack self-compassion, they are unable to feel it for anyone else.
But I think it’s even more than that. It’s the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. I do have self esteem issues and I question my own ability to love and be loved, but I still can feel empathy for others. I feel those feelings when I hear of someone else being sexual assaulted or when someone gets cancer or when their child dies. I can empathize with people who feel alone and lonely and for those who just don’t feel good enough.
I know people who seem to have strong self esteems and yet can’t extend their thoughts to anyone else.
I know people who love intensely but still lack empathy.
When I see so many people who turn away others when someone needs help, like homeless people who are hungry and cold, or refugees trying to find sanctuary, I wonder what can be done to help these people find compassion for others, at least, even of they can’t feel empathy for the suffering.
I’m not sure what the answer is… awareness, naturally has to come first, and then perhaps education. Maybe this is something that needs to be taught in schools now, since we can no longer count on it happening in homes and religion.