Tuesday, December 7, 2010


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.

The Basics
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. 
Meryl Streep


  1. This was a wonderful post Jaim! I'm glad you realize this about yourself and aren't too scared to tell people how great you are at it. Aside from your many great qualities, your empathy is one of the main reasons we became friends and have become best friends. You relate to people in a way that is so beautiful and powerful. This quality will take you far in life, especially in the field of psychology.

  2. Your ability to put yourself in others' shoes and see things from their perspective never ceases to amaze me, nor does your writing. Being empathetic is something I pride myself on and I know exactly where you're coming from with the constant crying. It's taken me a while to realize that it is not a sign of weakness as many think it is, it's a sign of strength. It means you're strong enough to put yourself in an unfamiliar position no matter what the outcome may be, and you should never lose that about yourself. I urge you to keep reaching out to people through empathy. You've helped so many people so far, why stop now?

  3. You probably said the word "empathy" more times in this post than i have ever heard it in real life, but all for the right reasons. Your empathetic spirit is one of your most distinguished characteristics, and something i envy about you. I am probably one of the least empathetic people i can think of, but watching how much you care for and love other people, makes me want to be more like you in that sense.

  4. Jamie I think this is a very insightful blog post! You said that people often come to you for advice because of your empathy and I can testify to this. I know there is one instance that comes to mind from the retreat that you referenced where I came to you for advice and I did this not only because you were my leader but I also felt a connection due to you deep empathy and love. Thanks for being so wonderfully empathetic :)

    Also if you can't tell from this blog post, I often struggle with organizing my thoughts and always notice how well your posts are organized and how that organization makes the post even stronger!

    One last thing: I love your song choice! Ingrid Michaelson is a favorite of mine[fun fact: I saw her in concert on Friday] and this song worked in perfectly how everyone has that common ground of human emotions like love.

  5. Jamie, your blog is amazing! Your writing is fantastic and the topics you write about are so easy for others to connect to. I love that you wrote about empathy, which is one of the qualities I admire most about you. I respect you on a much higher level because of how genuine you are towards people. Showing emotion is beautiful and 100% shows strength, not weakness. Reading this post made me think of To Kill A Mockingbird. Geeky, I know, but Atticus says to Scout, “If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” What do you for others, in terms of being a person to lean on and feel comfortable to confide in, is so admirable. Thank you for being a person I can talk to 24/7. And truthfully, every time I hear these lyrics, "Let me be the one you call. If you jump I'll break your fall. Lift you up and fly away with you into the night. If you need to fall apart. I can mend a broken heart. If you need to crash then crash and burn. You're not alone," I always picture you saying this to me :)

  6. Honestly you are just so wonderful! Your writing is beautiful and I look forward to reading whatever you have to say. I was so thrilled to see that in the last paragraph you talked about how people come to you for advice because of your immense empathy, because that is what I was thinking the whole time I was reading the post. I feel so comfortable coming to you with any problems I might have because I know you won't judge me in any way and will sincerely try and help me. You're the best, I love you!! - Julia

    ps I love this song sooooo much

  7. Hey Jamie, my name is Hannah and I found your blog on the comments4kids page and noticed that your posts closely relate to a study my G&T class is currently doing about hope and the human spirit.

    I completely agree with your opinions about empathy and how they shape relationships in our lives. To answer a few pondering questions about empathic relationships you may have, I recommend you watch this video http://fora.tv/2010/05/06/Jeremy_Rifkin_The_Empathic_Civilization_Animated which discusses the possibilities of an Empathic Civilization.

    in my opinion, in order to live a healthy and successful life, you need to be able to hold on to strong empathic relationships with yourself and everyone you interact with. Though, I do believe that if you can not find a balance of empathy within yourself and those around you, (for example being too emotional) your life may be dramatically affected.

    If you get a chance, check out my blog! hannahogt2.blogspot.com