Sometimes, people are so caught up in their day-to-day lives that they lose a crucial part of themselves, something many people might call “empathy.” Empathy doesn’t just measure how much you care for others – it encapsulates an ability to navigate a variety of social cues. For example, being able to read someone’s facial expressions is a form of empathy. Being able to relate to or feel for a fictional character in a book or a movie is also a form of empathy.
Empathy is actually very tricky to explain, at least for me. As someone living on the neurodiverse spectrum, I’ve had to teach myself things that come naturally to most people. There were lots of different vocal tones and expressions that I couldn’t pick up on for a long time. Sarcasm was always a particularly tricky one for me – why say something if you didn’t mean it? My brain was hyper-literal, in that sense, and would take things very matter-of-factly. To improve my empathy, I had to manually teach myself how to pick up subtle changes in personality, emotion, and appearance. It wasn’t easy, and often I felt alone in my struggles with empathy, since most people I knew just had it, to some degree, by default. I felt distant from people when I couldn’t read them. That’s not to say that I didn’t understand when someone was extremely sad, or highly upset – in fact, the clearer and more exaggerated their emotion, the better I could read it.
For a lot people, like I mentioned before, basic empathy comes naturally. With that in mind, many people think they have great empathy, when in reality, they might need to rethink how they approach their empathetic connections. Those who are highly empathic, for example, can get stressed by other people’s problems too easily, which leads to more problems for both parties down the line. There is a fine line between being empathic in a balanced way, and being so attuned to the feelings of the people around that you feel like you are living someone else’s life for them and experiencing their emotions vicariously While it is important to help others, you can’t do so if you’re having a breakdown on behalf of someone else.
Empathy is also highly related to mental health. One internal study found that “high mental well-being was associated with enhanced resident empathy”. That is to say, the better our own well-being is, the better our empathy can become. So, sadly, if you’re struggling with your mental health, it’s not uncommon for your empathy to be a little mitigated. Another study found that the lonelier you are, the more selfish you become. If you find yourself isolated, it would probably be in your best interest to change your lifestyle, even just a little bit, to allow more access to the community around you.
So empathy is vital for wellbeing, but too much of it can be detrimental. With all this in mind, what are the steps you could take to improve on your empathetic experience? One common tip is to start by improving your listening skills. The more we listen to people, the more we understand about them, and typically this leads to a greater feeling of empathy for them and others. Another tip is to stay curious and open-minded about other people, whether they are friends, neighbors, or even strangers. Think about what they might be going through on a daily basis. A quote by oral historian Studs Terke recovered via the BBC had this to say: “Don’t be an examiner, be the interested inquirer.” I believe this piece of advice is one to take to heart. In essence, he is asking us to put aside our judgments of others and instead ask questions and be engaged. Once I started to put this type of thinking into work, I found that I was feeling much happier and engaged with people overall. And if you find yourself overwhelmed by the internal lives of other people, there’s nothing wrong with taking a step back and setting some healthy boundaries. Empathy must exist in a good balance with all your other processes. Listen to people, try to understand people, but don’t try to become someone else.
1. Shanafelt, Tait D., et al. “Relationship between Increased Personal Well-Being and Enhanced Empathy Among.” SpringerLink, Springer-Verlag, July 2005, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-005-0102-8
2. Holt-Lunstad, Julianne, et al. “Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality.” SAGE Journals, 11 Mar. 2015, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1745691614568352
3. “Can You Teach People to Have Empathy?” BBC, 29 June 2015, https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33287727