Empathy is the ability to feel compassion for other people., it involves being sensitive to the feelings of others and reacting with that information in mind. If you have had children, you will know that in the early years children seem to have little compassion or ability to know what other people are experiencing. It is a skill which develops.
Researchers have found that it is not a skill that can be developed in isolation, like walking, it is much more complex and requires appropriate modelling by adults and peers. It also requires us to be able to imagine and assess emotional experiences.
If we grew up with unsafe and unattuned caregivers, it is a NORMAL adaptation to be reticent to ‘stand in someone else’s shoes’ and allow yourself to feel empathy.
Imagine having a mother who is an alcoholic. Most of the time she is neglectful, she will leave you crying for hours with no attention. Eventually you stop crying and even trying to get attention. Sometimes, when she is drinking, she is unpredictable, she might go out without telling you all night and leave you home alone and scared.
As a safety mechanism you stop yourself from feeling. Stop yourself from having needs and cut yourself off from her, and everyone else, emotionally. This interrupts of the natural development of empathy.
Empathy IS something that can be developed as an adult. Interesting fact: research has shown that reading works by Dickens increases our empathy by helping us attune to others’ emotions. Who knew!
Have a wonderful weekend and let me know what you did today to increase your empathy.
Reference: Kidd, D. C. & Castano, E. (2013). Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science, 342; 377-380.