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.

EmpathyIf you have never felt a certain feeling, it will be hard for you to understand how another person is feeling. If you have never felt embarrassed or defiant, you will probably not understand those feelings. Reading about a feeling and knowing about it is very different than actually experiencing it for yourself. People who have actually experienced the widest range of feelings — the great depths of depression, or the heights of joy, for example, — are the one’s who are most able to empathize with the greatest number of people from all walks of life. When we say that someone “can’t relate” to other people, it is probably because they haven’t experienced, acknowledged or accepted many feelings of their own. The first step to empathy is that we must be able to experience our own emotions.

I learned this first hand last year when I was hospitalized. My empathy for the sick has grown ten-fold.

Many people (young and old) in today’s society have grown out of touch with their own feelings. What can cause a person to lose touch with their own feelings and their natural sense of conscience? The proliferation of divorces, the breakdown of the “family, the desensitization of violence by our media and entertainment industry, internet pornography, and child abuse, have all contributed to deep, unmet emotional needs and the ensuing “emotional numbness” that plagues our society. People simply shut down and turn off. They do not experience their own pain, and therefore, they have no compassion for the pain of another. Nor do they have any empathy. People have taken to numbing themselves from their feelings through drugs, alcohol, etc. and/or have developed elaborate defense mechanisms such as rationalization, justification, denial, intellectualization, moralizing, preaching, proselytizing, self-righteousness, projection, suppression, etc. in an attempt to block the pain they would endure if they allowed themselves to feel. People who are not in touch with their own feelings are also not likely to have a sense of conscience. They feel no remorse, no guilt for hurting others. In the absence of a conscience, their behavior must be controlled by fear, threats and punishment, or by separation from society. This all comes at a huge social cost.

We need to become aware of what we are actually feeling — to acknowledge, identify, “be in touch with”, and accept our feelings. Only then can we empathize with others. Only then will we have a sense of conscience. From the platform of understanding our own feelings, we can then begin to become aware of what other people are feeling. It would be a lot easier to be aware of other people’s emotions if they would simply tell us how they felt. But since most people don’t, we have to 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. There are many others however who have become experts at hiding their emotions. Being empathetic means being constantly on vigilance to others’ cues, particularly the non-verbal ones such as facial expressions. We need to have high powered emotional radar, constantly searching the horizon for faint signals of emotional distress. The more “blips” we are able to pick up, the more we can help people. Empathy radar doesn’t work very well when it’s forced to see through “pride” and “self-centeredness”. If you are constantly focused only on yourself, it’s almost impossible to be aware of, and tend to the emotional needs of others.

Once we have figured out how another person feels, we can show empathy by acknowledging the emotion. We can say things like “I can see that you are really bothered by this” or “I can understand why you are upset”. Many times the simple act of showing empathy is just as meaningful to the person hurting as having a solution to their problem. We can also show empathy through a simple sign of affection such as hug or a supportive hand on the shoulder. 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., like giving someone a high five when they do something great.

While our innate emotional sensitivity gives us the ability to feel empathy, it is the virtues of wisdom and courage that help us decide what to do when we feel empathy. It is of little use to have empathy for others and not have the courage to act on it, to reach out to others and give them emotional support.

Empathy is certainly something we could use more of in today’s society. Our human ability to empathize is often the first step on the road to loving and serving our fellowman.

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