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Let's talk about Empathy


So, what do we know about Empathy? How does it relate to our lives? How does it connect with other areas like health, friendship, science, love?

Here's a few links to get us all started:

I'm sure there's heaps more (and more interesting) info on the web. Let's share our opinions, questions and curiosity, and see where this leads, shall we? Welcome to the Empathy discussion!

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8 comments to “Let's talk about Empathy”

  1. #01 By MindTweaker, 100727 at 19:05

    I am going to begin discussing empathy before I read anything new
    on the subject. It is such a broad topic that it cannot be
    sufficiently explored by addressing only one aspect. To begin with
    however, I would like to talk about some of the social and cultural
    implications of empathy, or what I would suggest is a lack thereof,
    while perhaps touching on the philosophical. The human species is
    supposed to be replete with this desirable characteristic. I would
    argue though that just because an entity is human, it does not
    follow automatically that empathy will be part of that entity’s
    makeup, at least until that entity has been through much
    experience. As I get older, I realise that when I was younger, I
    was quicker to make value judgements about others, which ultimately
    may not always have been correct. Had I been the vessel of more
    empathy, these judgements may not have been so acute. Not that I
    believe I have ever been an especially judgemental person, I merely
    think that one can be more dogmatic about judgements when one lacks
    a certain level of understanding. That “understanding”
    theoretically will come with time. I believe we live in a world
    where empathy for one’s fellow man -and for animals- is continually
    mitigated by cultural influences. Some cultural factors which I
    believe erode any potentially innate empathy consist of the
    following: * Continuous bombardment with violence, war, death and
    pain on television and through other media * In Australia and
    probably elsewhere, a perceived association between recognising and
    expressing sadness or emotion and of being “unmanly”, in the case
    of the male or perhaps “weak” in the case of the female *
    Disassociation from our sources of food and hunter-gatherer grass
    roots survival * Belief by some, that animals and other “lesser"
    creatures are put here for human use only * Demonising of some
    lesser-privileged segments of society * Demonising of refugees *
    Promotion of the idea that people must be ruthless and “man up” in
    order to “succeed” * Elevation of greed and acquisitiveness as a
    goal * Propagation of the belief system that if we try hard enough,
    we can “achieve anything”, which conversely emphasises the belief
    that if one has not “achieved” (according to some external,
    spurious definition) then obviously one cannot have tried hard
    enough and is thus unworthy in some way I could go on and on (and
    possibly will add to these points if it seems suitable to do so!).
    I believe we should aim to get a broad understanding of not only
    what it means to be “human” but what it might mean to be “alive”
    and subject to the vagaries of life and to use that knowledge to
    become better, to develop our empathy and to live a more
    compassionate and peaceful existence. There’s a start from me

  2. #02 By dense13, 100729 at 09:17

    So here's a point I want to ask, extracted from Bill's comment:

    Does empathy develop (or diminish!) with time? That would imply it's a skill that can be developed/taught. I find that interesting, how?

  3. #03 By Rockmelon, 100801 at 12:39

    I've heard of people having less empathy over time. I think it's
    called empathy fatigue? It's like when people are bombarded with
    advertisements on television about how they should donate to this
    cause and to that cause, over and over again, and they get so sick
    of it that they have less empathy than they started with. On the
    other hand I was taught by my mother to have empathy from a very
    young age. She often would talk about 'putting yourself in someone
    else's shoes', although I think sometimes she had too much empathy
    because her extreme level of empathy would often make her very
    upset by things she saw, on the news for example, and it affected
    her health. I have to be careful with empathy though because it
    makes me want to try to do SOMETHING to help, and that can be a
    very difficult balance which can cause more problems when/if things
    go wrong...

  4. #04 By Silvia, 100801 at 23:30

    Empathy. My experience has showed me that empathy is something one
    can learn and develop. Many people think that they are empathic
    because they give advise to their friends or other people, or they
    tell them how they felt in a similar situation, or they tell them
    "don't worry about it, it will pass", etc. All this may undoubtedly
    be very good intentioned. However, I think that empathy is
    something else. It is the ability to feel with the other person, to
    feel what is inside the other person, to be present with him/her.
    No judgment, no interpretation. Empathy is a heart to heart
    connection. I admit that it is not an easy subject to define. It is
    also not so easy to give. The good news are that it can be learned
    and developed. I have attended some seminars about Non Violent
    Communication, also read a couple of books on the subject. This has
    given me a broader view of what empathy is. I have also learned
    that one of the most important things is to learn to give empathy
    to ourselves first, and that may be not so easy. But everything
    starts at home, doesn't it? Empathy can be learned and can be
    cultivated. Start practicing.

  5. #05 By MindTweaker, 100802 at 12:27

    Hmmm...an interesting point made by Rockmelon. I agree. I believe
    we can indeed be hardened to the suffering of others as a result of
    "over-exposure" to charity causes, media imagery, etc. Being
    something of a cynic, I feel that a well developed sense of empathy
    is not present in most people until they have suffered. Even then,
    lots of people I have met, while being quite empathetic about some
    things, are completely devoid of the same understanding relating to
    some other things. Even then, this sense of empathy can be short
    lived. For example, I had a school techer when I was young, who was
    most decidely and consistently a very harsh person, in my opinion,
    when it came to exhibiting any empathy and understanding towards
    any problems his students may have faced. That teacher later had a
    minor car accident and suffered a minor injury. When he returned to
    work, his sense of empathy was quite evident for other peoples'
    suffering...for about one week. When we recovered from the shock of
    his experience, he went back to being the same callous individual
    he had been before the accident. This may sound judgemental on my
    part but I did not set out to judge him; I merely observed the
    strikingly obvious behavioural changes. If only there were some
    mechanism by which the human species could genetically transmit its
    collective empathetic experiences rather than everyone having to go
    through the same "discoveries" of suffering and pain in order to be
    able to identify with the experiences of others... Sylvia is
    correct too in saying that giving empathy to oneself is important.
    Indeed, how can one be charitable of thought and feeling to others
    if one is harsh with oneself? Nevertheless, some societal
    influences discourage kindness to oneself. Therein lies a

  6. #06 By Natalia, 100811 at 22:18

    Wow, so much has been said already, not sure where to start. At
    first when I saw the links you provided I found it funny that you
    put one to the mirror neurones, I know they are the ones that make
    us more empathic, that make us put ourselves in someone else's
    shoes, but I just read a book in which it explains how it is used
    to make us buy things. Then again that is just the problem, pretty
    much everything in society is designed to numb us to just make us
    want to buy, have, consume. Our possible sense of empathy is being
    exploited not so we identify with the less fortunate but with the
    ones that have more so we want to be like them and emulate them at
    whatever the cost, out health, relationships, etc. We, the "lucky"
    ones don't generally stop to think about how fortunate we are, just
    by having a roof over our heads, jobs, food, health, but instead
    complain all day long. One thing I find strange is how people can
    have very selective empathy (assuming that's what it is). Strong
    sense of empathy towards some creatures and not others, people who
    can rescue a dog from the side of the road and yet be fanatic about
    bullfighting, people who use the fact that help out animals to feel
    morally superior to others and to think that gives them the right
    to judge and criticise. About whether empathy increases or
    diminishes over time I think it depends on the person, funnily I
    think the same experience can have opposite effects on different
    people, I think I have more empathy now than I used to have, but
    like it has been said with so many people in need most people start
    blocking it out. I am not sure if it is because it is too painful
    or on the contrary, not to feel guilt about not wanting to do
    anything about it. Of course it would be explained more like "not
    being able to do anything about it". I have heard before about
    people seeing the light when they have serious accident or a near
    death experience and then forgetting all about it within a few
    weeks, apparently it is quite common. I keep wondering if things
    are getting worse in the sense of violence, lack of concern for
    others apathy or humans have always been like now but we just have
    so much more information, and yet, considering how much information
    we have, how aware we all are of what is happening, I find it
    deeply troubling how very few people have enough empathy to stand
    up against violence, injustice and pain around them. Sorry I fear I
    have gone off various tangents, making coherent arguments is not my
    strong point :)

  7. #07 By dense13, 100918 at 13:19

    Hi everyone. First, I want to thank you all for joining the discussion and sharing your thoughts and experiences. I feel rich by having great friends to share this kind of exploration with. Next: I apologize for not having been actively involved in the discussion, I started it just before leaving Melbourne and moving is always a bit disorganizing. Still now excuse, I've been in Long Beach for weeks now... anyway, moving on! :)

    The 'exercise' is technically over (again, thanks everyone for joining!) but the conversation can go on if anyone feels inspired. I do now :), so here's some more thoughts:

    I find the distinction pointed out by Silvia very interesting: understanding or sharing situations with others doesn't necessarily imply having empathy. I like how she puts it: "...to be present with him/her. No judgment, no interpretation. Empathy is a heart to heart connection". That is why I'm interested in the question of "can it be learnt?". Because, just thinking or listening is not enough (although it's still good, of course). How does one practice the ability to *feel* what others feel? And how does one stay sane, and not let it become overpowering like Rockmelon was describing? So, any thoughts on actual *practice*?

    And here's another thought: is empathy a good thing? Probably yes, but then it can be dangerous (or at least delicate) in some cases. Like situations mentioned above about people being strongly affected by it to the point of loosing health, or people being manipulated to behave in certain ways, like Natalia was commenting about advertising. So maybe it's not just about developing one's empathy, but also about understanding it and being aware of it.

  8. #08 By Carla, 120731 at 02:44

    I believe Empathy is learned through experience and grows through
    experience and time. That is, for clarity, the ability to be able
    to put yourself in someone elses shoes and actually feel what they
    are feeling. Ex. My partner lost his wife 10 years ago (38 yrs
    old). Huge loss, immense pain and suffering. When he speaks about
    that experience, I cry. I can literally feel the pain and loss.
    However, I'm not feeling his pain and loss because I'm a seperate
    human being. We aren't attached at the hip or even at the heart. My
    tears are real and my body feels the hurt and pain because I have
    experienced my own hurt, pain, and loss. I can relate to his
    experience through my own experience. People that are unable to put
    themselves in someone elses shoes has not either learned to do so,
    or has not experienced enough in life to be able to relate to the
    feelings that are associated with certain experiences. People are
    basically good for the most part, and I believe we all are doing
    the best we can with what we know; however, unless you have the
    experience to be able to directly relate to the feelings, it makes
    it difficult for people to be truly empathetic. They will do their
    best though.

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