What does empathy mean to you? First off, let’s talk about the difference between empathy vs. sympathy. There’s a very fine line that differentiates one from the other, so let’s define each one for clarity.
Sympathy is the capacity to feel bad or have pity for someone going through something bad—while empathy consists of mentally putting yourself in that person’s shoes to truly feel the emotions they’re feeling caused by said negative experience. So, empathy is a lot more visceral, and an embodiment of “I can feel what you’re feeling because x or y happened to me too.”
An example can help clear it up even more:
You see someone stub their toe and scream out in pain, bending over to grab their foot. An act of sympathy would be saying, “That must’ve hurt. I’m sorry that happened.” A true empath on the other hand, would probably be wincing in pain with them, somehow almost feeling that toe pain because they know all too well what it’s like.
Our digital age has created somewhat of a separation in our minds from how impactful watching something is. If we watch a video, it just seems like an out of reach piece of entertainment, because we’ve seen it or something similar to it so many times, over and over on our devices. It doesn’t necessarily feel like the content of the video is real or like it could actually happen to us. As we continue to consume that type of media and associate with those detached feelings, we risk growing further and further from the ability to truly empathize. Empathy requires a certain level of attachment and relation to a scenario—without that realization, feeling empathy is impossible. We’re also placing our own digital footprint above others as we increase that detachment. We want more likes, more views, more me. So, this effectively causes us to think less of others and empathize with them. It’s a cycle that is only going to get worse and will see generations solely focused on themselves and not the others around them.
The need for empathy continually rises alongside the drop it’s seeing in today’s culture as we forget about how other people are feeling; we truly need it now more than ever to eliminate all the toxicity in our technical age.
Get Out of the “Me, Me, Me”
Let’s look at the actual numbers of less empathy today. According to a study of 14,000 students, all college-goers from the year 2000 until now are 40% less empathetic
than those who attended before that mark. Why is that? The study details that people nowadays just don’t go outside as much and therefore aren’t getting as much human contact. Those same people are raising kids and teaching them their same habits. So when the kids stay inside in front of screens more, they interact with other kids far less. Interaction with other humans is vital to learning empathy and using it habitually. Empathy and interaction are also the definite keys to a more well-rounded and co-existing community in the world. The more people are exposed to the diversity of people of all kinds, the closer to co-existence we become. Try dropping some of your solo indoor habits in exchange for more active or socially-centered ones. Get face to face with people and acquire some real human interaction. Instead of thinking about your next Instagram post, try putting your phone down
during conversations, and maybe press pause on your current TV binge. Go out into the world, even if it’s with one person, or just to people watch, and get in touch with human feelings. Encourage your friends, family, and kids to do the same: human beings are social creatures and without human contact, we suffer from deeply damaging emotions such as loneliness and depression that ripples effects into others and the world.
Experience Healthy Relationships
It’s natural to fend for yourself in relationships. Unfortunately, though, that doesn’t typically create a healthy, balanced dynamic. If you’re stuck in the cycle of constant arguments, conflict or toxicity, you can tend to think, “How can I win this,” or similarly, “Eventually I can prove I’m right.” It becomes very one-sided and we almost get tunnel vision just to leverage ourselves higher and higher, rather than taking a fair two-sided perspective. This is where empathy can pay great dividends toward your relationship and repair an otherwise shambled mess (or just prevent future fights).
There are some statistics behind the power of empathy in relationships, too. A study of 550 Korean outpatients found the outpatients
were far more content and cooperative when they thought of their doctor as being more empathetic. So, think of that in terms of your personal relationships. During the next conflict or even minor scuffle, don’t take your immediate instinctive action. Wait. Now, reflect on the other person’s feelings. What caused them to take this side in the argument? What did I do that lead to this? How are they feeling right now because of that? Most of us just want to be understood, and showing your effort to really try to understand the other person will drastically improve the dynamic of your communication. At the very least, you’ve re-tooled the way you interact with your partner, friend, or loved one and done your fair share of changing for the better. This should, just like in the study, see a reflection in the other person as they pick up on your positive changes. Maybe they’ll think, “Wow, he/she is being incredibly thoughtful and actually caring about how I feel” and begin putting in effort to do the same on their end. It’s so simple, yet incredibly powerful. Remember: First step—think before you speak. Then, try empathy.
Practice Deeper Meditations
Your sessions of meditation and even chanting positive affirmations
are no doubt to create a better, more grounded version of yourself. But, have you tried to implement thinking of others during that time too? Sometimes, reflecting on past traumas, hurt, relationship damage
(past or present) and struggles with a new perspective can help melt away the pain you’ve felt. You’re allowed to feel those pains, of course, but once you view them from the other side, with genuine empathy and understanding, you can discover a peace that you never knew before. The best part is that this practice is beneficial for both sides—it’s good for your own well-being because you can become free from lingering emotions of anger and resentment, and it’s good for the other person because they can be understood and forgiven. So employ that empathy to forgive, support and love. It can be for versions of yourself you don’t like, people who wronged you, or situations that had seemingly no bright side. Your next session of self-love can be deeper and more healing as a result.