The Truth About Empathy

My cousin Jack* is in his senior year of high school, and as an end-of-the-year project, he has to interview people from different stages of life. The topic is one simple (or not-so-simple) question. I rather enjoyed creating my response, so I decided to share it with all of you here. I’m also curious about your thoughts, good readers. Please feel free to share in the comments. I suspect answers to such a question will vary wildly. And maybe it’ll get Jack extra credit. ;)

What do you know to be true about empathy?

Empathy is my superpower. It’s my secret weapon. It’s how I get through the day, the month, the year.

I’ve always lived toward the strong end of the empathy spectrum. It’s a mixed blessing, but I do believe it’s a blessing. As I see it, at its heart, empathy is the ability to understand what other people feel and even experience an echo of that feeling (sometimes a rather loud echo). I’m quite proficient at this, and it’s served me well.

It plays a role in each personal interaction I have every single day. Everything from saying good morning to my spouse, to conferencing with a coworker, to ordering a burger at a fast food place, I’m experiencing, and using, empathy. Is Steven in a good mood in the morning? Great! I notice that, encourage it, and use it to help bolster me if I’m not. Is my coworker uncomfortable with a new piece of software? I suss that out immediately and can lend her the support, patience, and kindness she needs to get up and running quickly and successfully. Is the cashier at A&W bored or exasperated? Sometimes simply noticing, giving a warm smile, and saying I’m happy to wait can change her whole demeanor. I see her interaction with the next customer start off much more smoothly.

I guess that’s a long way of saying I try to harness empathy and use it to make the world a better place, one interaction at a time. Boost the positive, try to balance out the negative. It’s a simplistic explanation, and it’s not always possible, but it’s worth striving for, so I do.

Empathy’s handy for building relationships. They grow stronger when misunderstandings are few and far between. And how many misunderstandings can there be when one or both parties are constantly aware of where the other person is coming from? I can’t remember the last time I was baffled by someone’s emotional motivation. I also can’t remember the last time I was truly angry at someone I know.

When asked the question “If you could be a superhero, what would your superpower be?” I’ve always said I’d want the ability to impart supercharged empathy to others. If I could wade into a brawl and let everyone experience what their opponent was feeling, I think most fights would end right quick.

But empathy isn’t completely a picnic. Here are a few other things I know to be true about empathy:

Empathy hurts. Taking on the pain of another human being isn’t easy—whether you’re doing it on purpose or not. In fact, for me, empathy isn’t something I make an effort at. Most of the time, it just happens. More commonly, I have to make an effort to ratchet the empathy down so I can continue to operate within my own life.

Empathy is dangerous. If you’re a very empathetic person, as I tend to be, it becomes all too easy to get wrapped up in another person’s wants and needs. It’s not just the pain that can be harmful. Living through someone else’s joy can be just as unhealthy.

Empathy is limiting. Because of these dangers, it’s often necessary to hold back, to avoid becoming emotionally entangled in the lives of those around me. I have my own life and issues to deal with, and I spent many years diving deeply into other people’s lives, thus neglecting my own. I’ve learned to avoid that, but it sometimes means pulling back from friends and maintaining distance. It’s a healthy distance, but one that still feels like a limitation after most of a lifetime living with few-to-no boundaries.

Empathy opens eyes. Despite the risks and limitations, I wouldn’t give up my empathetic nature for anything. Understanding what other people are going through has made my world much, much richer. I feel like I’m more a part of the world when I feel a stronger connection to my fellow human beings.

Empathy heals. That connection can be balm to a weary soul. Whether it’s taking on a little bit of someone else’s joy when I don’t have much of my own, or intuiting exactly what a sad friend needs to clear away some of that sorrow, my own heart is the beneficiary. I get a boost of lightness.

Empathy’s a tricky thing. It’s slippery. It may not work quite the same for everyone, but for me, in my life, this is what I know to be true about empathy.

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*Jack is, as you might guess, quite a bit younger than I. I was already an adult when he was born, which makes him one of the extremely few people I’ve known since birth. It’s been fascinating watching him grow up into the intelligent, deep-thinking, deep-feeling, nearly-grown-up man that he is. I’m more than just-a-little honored he chose me as one of his interview subjects. That sound you hear? It’s my heart growing three sizes.

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4 thoughts on “The Truth About Empathy

  1. lizroselee says:

    Totally agree with everything you say, it’s like you read my mind! I too am prone to letting empathy rule me and am currently working on being able to take a step back and not take on the problems of those close to me. One thing I have started to question is are their feelings the same as what I feel, or am I just putting myself in that situation and feeling as I would. Does that make sense? In other words do they necessarily feel the same as THINK they do in that situation. Is empathy sometimes misleading?

    • Erika Ensign says:

      That’s a really interesting question! I do wonder how “right on” my sympathetic feelings are and how much is unconscious conjecture based on how I’d react. This is something I’m gonna think about much more now. Thanks!

  2. lizroselee says:

    Edit: as I THINK they do

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