Recommended listening: Everybody by Ingrid Michaelson
One word that has come up a lot in my life lately is empathy. In English the concept of empathy has been discussed through the memoir we're reading. In my Psychology class we have discussed empathy through the manifestation of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, a personality disorder characterized by lack of empathy. And then, in my life outside of academics, I have certainly noticed empathy at play. I recently had the privilege of leading a religious retreat called Kairos (previously referred to in my post Take My Hand) where the empathy, compassion, and love shared between participants was boundless. Outside of that, those who know me would certainly say I have a strong sense of empathy. In fact, I often joke that I have an "overactive empathy gland" because I cry so much in response to anything from the emotions of those around me to fictitious events portrayed in film.
All of the recent talk about empathy has led to a significant amount of rumination and ultimately, this post. First and foremost, certain ideas must be sorted out. When I was younger I had a problem differentiating between sympathy and empathy. After establishing the definition of empathy, it is then essential to note situations in which people commonly feel empathy. I believe, as do other sources, that the root of empathy lies in common ground on the wide spectrum of human feelings and experiences. A few common threads that many share are: loss, love, faith, happiness, desire, friendship, pressure, and disappointment. I would argue that, to some extent, most people have felt or gone through almost all of the above. This similarity helps to establish the framework for empathy in more specific situations.
Results of Empathy
Empathy, in my opinion, certainly has its advantages. For example, those who are able to feel empathy towards others typically have successful, caring relationships where communication about emotions is prevalent. On the flip side, when one is personally struggling with something, the empathy of others is often integral in dealing with the issue and feeling supported. This is perhaps why people who have trouble with empathy also have difficulty interacting with others and establishing deep relationships. Personally I have found my ability to feel empathy has helped me reach out, help, and guide people. I also feel empathy is one of the core reasons I am able to connect with those around me, despite superficial differences.
A Look Within
So we know that empathy impacts our interactions with those around us, but what does empathy do to us? How does our ability, or inability, to feel empathy impact who we are?
I think empathy primarily impacts our identity in the sense that it plays a role in both how those around us perceive us and how we perceive ourselves. If we have a strong sense of empathy then we are often characterized as more emotional people. Those who lack empathy may be seen as colder or having feelings that are buried far below the surface. Our capacity for empathy then sheds light on our personality as a whole and the way in which we approach feelings.
As for me...
There are certainly times when I wish I didn't feel empathy so strongly. For instance, it's never fun being the one person whose sniffles echo through the room or surprising people with my excitement or tears of joy on their behalf. However, I am starting to recognize that not only is there nothing to be ashamed of, but that my approach to connecting to others is a critical part of who I am. I believe my sense of empathy has shaped how other people perceive me as well as how I perceive myself. I think that people come to me for advice because they know that, on some level, I can relate to what they are going through. I think that people see me as a genuine person because I don't hide my empathy. And, because I do feel for others so deeply, I have discovered my passion for psychology. Although in some ways I'm concerned that I have too much empathy to provide adequate therapy, I know that the degree to which I feel empathy is part of who I am and will certainly shape my future.
The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy.