Teaching Empathy

When one thinks of Empathy, the question arises, “Can Empathy be taught or is it something ingrained in a person already, a conditioned response based on hypersensitivity, genes, and/or lessons learned in the formative years of life (toddler years)?” I’ve seen many ideas about this questions over the years, as I studied human development, anthropology, social sciences and psychology. There are also ideas which rise out of more new age thinking about Empaths.

So it is safe to say that quite a few people are thinking about this, with a myriad of responses and theories from mirror neurons (which is basically to say monkey see monkey do) to more complex theories based in the human psyche.

Some new age beliefs, I’ve found, say that Empaths differ from the rest of society because of their hypersensitivity toward others emotions and emotional states, despite how they came by that hypersensitivity ~ heredity or conditioning. But being an Empath does not necessarily mean you are predisposed to offering Empathy to others. Often times, instead, the Empath is so weighed down by this hypersensitivity that they have the potential to isolate themselves from others more than reaching out to people. What sets an Empath apart, then, isn’t their willingness to do reach out but it is their hypersensitivity to others.

That being said, we come back to an idea that I’ve written about a number of times called Empathic Concern or Compassionate Empathy. This idea takes the Emotional Empathy of an Empath one step further, and adds genuine concern and compassion to it, which in turn pushes the person to offer a helping hand to someone else. Compassionate Empathy is basically something also known as Empathic Concern, which is defined as:

Human beings are strongly motivated to be connected to others. In humans and other higher mammals, an impulse to care for offspring is almost certainly genetically hard-wired, although modifiable by circumstance.

Empathic concern refers to other-oriented emotions elicited by and congruent with the perceived welfare of someone in need. These other-oriented emotions include feelings of tenderness, sympathy, compassion, soft-heartedness, and the like. Empathic concern is often and wrongly confused with empathy.

To empathize is to respond to another’s perceived emotional state by experiencing feeling of a similar sort. Empathic concern or sympathy not only include empathizing, but also entails having a positive regard or a non-fleeting concern for the other person.

In saying that Empaths are hypersensitive toward others emotions and emotional states, this does not limit this idea to only Empaths. Almost everyone, barring an illness like sociopathy or other mental illness, is hypersensitive, to a certain degree, to those around them. So the question goes from “Can it be taught…” to “How does one raise a person’s awareness enough to feel it? How do you teach Empathy?”. Let’s look at some of the ways.

Teaching Empathy

Teaching Empathy to another person is both a simple and complicated idea, at the same time. It’s a relatively simple concept with a great deal of depth beneath it in the scope of how it can be utilized and taught. The basic idea is that you give the person what they need to integrate this personality trait into themselves~empathy.

Now this is achieved by something called positive manipulation. So before you get upset thinking ‘manipulation…wtf?!’, keep reading and I’ll elaborate. Positive manipulation is a uplifting interaction between two people with the motivation of healing. And its done at all kinds of levels. So lets look at some of those.

Speaking respectfully to someone, even when you disagree with them on a topic is positive manipulation. Validating another person’s feelings of hurt and anger, even when your first inclination is to get mad at them, is a form of positive manipulation. Showing concern and compassion for a person’s plight, is positive manipulation. In this case, the word manipulation can be interchangeable with a word like reinforcement ~ positive reinforcement.

By being an example, a model, and a catalyst of change in a person’s life, you have the potential to help shape their perceptions indirectly. What this means is that if you offer someone a helping hand and show them loving compassion, that is potentially a catalyst for change within their lives. And it carries with it ripple effects of how they will choose to develop themselves, what traits they will embody, and how they will interact with others. And by being a model or example, simply by offering them a helping hand, you have ingrained something on their hearts they won’t forget.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
~~Maya Angelou

This is why there are so many levels one human being can influence another, and why its called manipulation, positive though it maybe. Because with every word you say, every story you share, every image you give, every facial expression, the tone of your voice, the body language, and the emotions behind those things, you influence the person beside you, more so than you probably realize right now.

You evoke emotions in them. You stir their minds to think, grow and develop in new directions. And in the simplest of actions, you are influencing another person’s path ~ just through simple interaction with that person. Ripple effects which cascade far into the future and touch untold numbers of people you will have no direct contact with.

But there is more to this idea, as well. So let me stop here for a moment and tell you a story.

A young girl by the name of Serah, grew up in an abusive home. She suffered from constant neglect and physical abuse from her family. And she was constantly, on top of being physically abused, told that she was nothing, a burden, garbage, and so on. It even reached a point where her family told her they would be better off if she didn’t exist at all.

Serah grew into a teenager who lived in abject terror of being alone. So any guy who showed interest in her was acceptable, despite the way he treated her. By adulthood she had been raped on numerous occasions, beaten to the point of being hospitalized, and was married to the same kind of man as all the ones before him. She had little education, because that was always a secondary focus to her relationships.

And then a day came, after a particularly violent bout with her husband, while she was lying in the hospital, where a woman came to talk to her. She quietly listened as Serah talked about what had happened to her and showed her compassion. And she gave Serah an address she could goto to escape her husband if she wished to. But, at that singular moment, Serah wasn’t quite ready to leave him, because she still hoped he would change. The woman didn’t push the issue, and merely said, “That place is there if you need it. Think about it.”

So, Serah went home to her husband, who was all apologies and love. And she was contented for a while, forgetting about the woman and the address. But then, as is often the case in domestic violence, one day her situation changed again into one of violence. This time, it was within an inch of her life. And this time, she remembered the address.

Battered, bruised, emotionally wounded and exhausted, she went there for help and…..

The point of this story is to show you how one catalyst, one nameless and faceless person in a sea of faces and names, can have a monumental effect on another human being. But it doesn’t have to be only in extreme cases like Serah. It happens at all kinds of levels in all kinds of situations. The story ends the way it does, because its not about what she chooses to do with the gift of hope she’s been offered, its simply the fact that it was offered at all in the first place, which in essence became a catalyst of change.

So how does one teach Empathy? It can be done through movies, music, television, books, art, and other types of writing, because these are expressions of human emotion which were conceptualized within a human heart and mind first, before being recreated in another medium. But those are accents and reinforcement for something that one can not escape when one is teaching Empathy ~ direct human interaction (online or offline). Because one can be inspired by the characters in fiction, but one can not truly model themselves after such figures in totality because there is what is written or acted out, and nothing more.

Having the patience and the humility to teach, consistently and earnestly, is what inspires and motivates more than anything else. It doesn’t matter what the subject is, be it a math tutor, a friend, a minister, a nurse, a husband/wife or whatever….its the willingness to reach out, offer compassion, show patience, listen with humility, and the willingness to help that causes a long lasting effect on the person beside you.

This is done by a two fold idea. You, as the model or example, and them delving into themselves to deal with their issues. The more they see, recognize, and understand about their own issues, pain, and suffering, the more they will come to understand others in their own time of need. And the more likely they will be to willingly choose to reach out to those people, as well.

Teaching Empathy isn’t a hard idea, as I said. It’s relatively simple. You do it without even realizing it, more than you probably realize at the conscious level. We do it with our children when we teach them to share. We do it with one another as we get closer to each other. It’s just a natural part of life. And yet, by realizing consciously what you can do with this, one person can potentially change the world, all be it indirectly.


~ by Misuchi Sakurai on March 18, 2010.

One Response to “Teaching Empathy”

  1. Hi there!I love this blog, and check it regularly… but there haven't been any new posts recently. I'm a teenage empath, and though I've scoured the internet, I haven't found anything as great as this blog. I pray that you all are okay and that whatever might be preventing you from updating turns out alright.Thank you,Eddie

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