Empathy is taking oneself out of the picture and knowing that people have their own lives, their own challenges, and their own emotions. It’s understanding that if someone feels a certain way, it may or may not have anything to do with you personally.
Compassion is helping someone who needs something you have in surplus, such as providing food or water for the hungry or donating clothes to refugees.
Gratitude is being thankful and happy for someone even if you’re having the worst time of your life, like if a friend gets engaged the same month you get divorced but still appreciate your friend’s joy.
Natural empathy is innate and does not always require an explicit expression of emotion from the other party, often it is described as an inexplicable instinct. Common indicators are when mothers can ‘feel’ that a child needs to be fed, teachers ‘sense’ tension or excitement in a classroom, parents ‘know’ why a child is really crying.
In a public setting, empathy is more like making space for a blind person who might use a walking stick or relating to the feeling of hunger and helplessness when meeting a homeless person.
The empathy itself takes place in a split second when our brains automatically sense another’s state of being, either from an unconscious observation of body language (such as tears or laughter), or from a conscious pre-existing experience of the feeling (such as hunger).
Contrarily, there are people who have not experienced empathy, love, and compassion throughout their entire lives. They find it hard to empathise with themselves.
People with heavily damaged pasts may be susceptible to common extremes: resistant and avoidant of empathy, or overcompensating of empathy. (A less common extreme would be psychopathy or narcissism, a medically diagnosed inability to experience empathy). Incidentally, all the above need the most compassion.
Resistance and avoidance of empathy may result from an unconscious fear of pain and ‘shadow self’ (Jung). Those who run from empathy likely know why they do it even if they don’t always admit it. It comes from the imagined pressure of having to ‘repay kindness’ contrasted with a lack of self-worth, the feeling of ‘I don’t deserve your kindness because I can’t live up to it’. In my experience, people who resist empathy tend to become anxious in the face of altruism and may sometimes retaliate to deny becoming a recipient of compassion. (Click to more on ‘Inferiority Complex’)
As adults, there are times and places where it’s natural to suppress one’s innate empathy, such as in a high-intensity workplace or during a sports match; conversely, it is unnatural to suppress empathy for prolonged periods of time. In a social setting, this demeanour may lead to being misunderstood as ‘heartless’, ‘cold’, ‘emotionless’, and in very rare situations, ‘psychopathic’. People who have been through trauma, abuse, or neglect may unknowingly embrace this persona as a defence mechanism. (Click to read more)
The other extreme of empathy is overcompensation or ‘over-empathising’. It is easily detectable because this mindset hinges on making one’s presence known. It comes from a need to validate oneself by exerting ‘kindness’ to the point of attention. This sometimes leads to conscious/unconscious exploitation rather than empathy of others (such as when political figures ‘use’ the image of cancer patients, abused victims or other vulnerable people to improve public ‘approval’ ratings).
Overcompensation is based the notion of ‘I showed you that I can be kind and therefore I am kind’. For a child or teenager, it is natural to seek such validation as one’s identity is still being formed; for a rational adult, however, this logic is flawed.
Kindness that requires validation is not kindness, it’s self-centeredness. Kindness is as simple as acknowledging others’ humanity. Validation is about ego and the focus is on one’s personal gain, to ‘look good’ or ‘feel good’ by helping others.
Empathy helps us understand that life is not how you feel about someone’s situation but being able to accept how someone else feels about their own situation. It’s being humble and respecting that you are not the conductor of their lives, and that for the most part, their personal successes and shortfalls are not a result of your existence.
Empathy is, for however long or short of a time, sharing in someone’s emotion, experience, and presence.
As the title says, more easily done than said…
Thank you for reading and happy January.
(Disclaimer: this article comprises of observations and does not claim to be absolute truths, merely reflections)