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Learning to build empathy

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Have you ever been at a show where the actor or musician has flubbed a line, and found yourself inwardly cringing on their behalf? Or found yourself in tears during a sad movie?

Empathy is at least part of what’s going on there. Broadly, empathy is about our ability to share in and accurately understand what’s going on inside of another person, especially how they’re feeling – almost as if it were happening to us. So, when we find ourselves squirming uncomfortably in our seats or getting sniffly in front of the T.V., it’s an empathic, “Oof, I feel you, I get you, I can imagine what you’re going through” kind of reaction.

Why does empathy matter?
So much of being human is unavoidably social, and our ability to experience and express empathy is vitally important for navigating our social worlds. Empathy can help us form and maintain connections, be more willing to help or support others, and less likely to hurt them. You can think of empathy as a kind of social glue; it helps us stick together. But unlike glue, we can’t pop out to the store and buy some more empathy.

Can we become more empathic?
We can, however, become more empathic. On average, some people may be more or less empathic. For example, people whose parents were responsive to their feelings and needs, supportive, and less controlling in childhood tend to be more empathic. However, how empathic we are changes depending on the situation we’re in – for example, if we’re in a conflict or if we’re stressed or rushed, we’re far less likely to express empathy. Bottom line: empathy can change, and we can find ways to change it for the better.

How can we become more empathic?
Researchers have identified several ways to build or increase different aspects of empathy. Here are two big ones:

Practice perspective-taking
It’s easy to develop tunnel vision, where we can’t really see beyond ourselves. So, to build empathy for others’ lives and experiences, practice perspective-taking:

-Sit down and write or think about what it might be like to be in someone else’s shoes. Be as detailed as possible. Ask yourself, “If that were me, what kinds of thoughts, worries, fears, hopes, dreams, or wishes would I have? What kinds of feelings would I have? Would I feel tension in my neck? Would I feel hot and flushed or cold and clammy? Would my heart race? What kinds of situations could I be experiencing that would make me feel that way?”
-Watch videos, vlogs, interviews, or documentaries relevant to the experience or person that you want to empathize with.
-Expose yourself to a wide range of people from different walks of life – for example, by visiting different places, talking openly and honestly with different people, reading their blogs, or following them on social media. Sometimes our empathy fails because we see someone as “other”, too different from us to relate to – opening up our social circles, finding commonalities, and understanding where differences come from can help.

Know and take care of yourself
It may seem contradictory, but to see and understand another person’s perspective and express our empathy with care or compassion, we need to be in a good place emotionally and we need to have clear emotional boundaries. So, it’s important to practice self-care. When we’re stressed or over-burdened, we don’t have the resources to be empathic towards others. Fill your own cup so that you’re better able to help someone else fill theirs.

It’s also important to recognize what does and doesn’t belong to you. Research suggests that people who don’t have a clear sense of themselves are more likely to become distressed and overwhelmed when they’re around someone who’s distressed. And once we’re distressed, our focus is back on ourselves and making ourselves feel better, rather than on the person in front of us. To express empathy, we need to be able to differentiate between “Me, happening to me” and “Not me, not happening to me."

Especially if you’re often exposed to others’ distress, all of these things – prioritizing taking care of yourself, setting appropriate boundaries, and distinguishing between what does and doesn’t belong to you – become even more important in the long-term. Without them, you’re likely not only to struggle with empathy but to be at higher risk for full compassion fatigue – which can involve feeling like you have no empathy left and experiencing things like physical and emotional exhaustion, numbness, irritability, depression, and anxiety.

The good news is, if you're struggling, MindBeacon is here to help with a variety of supports available in our Virtual Mental Health Therapy Clinic. If you are part of our Workplace Mental Health Program, please visit your company page for access to services covered by your workplace.

Selected references:
-Fabi, S., Weber, L. A., & Leuthold, H. (2019). Empathic concern and personal distress depend on situational but not dispositional factors. PloS one, 14(11), e0225102.
-Kanat-Maymon, M., & Assor, A. (2010). Perceived maternal control and responsiveness to distress as predictors of young adults’ empathic responses. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(1), 33-46.
-Krol, S. A., & Bartz, J. A. (2021). The self and empathy: Lacking a clear and stable sense of self undermines empathy and helping behavior. Emotion.
-Powell, P. A., & Roberts, J. (2017). Situational determinants of cognitive, affective, and compassionate empathy in naturalistic digital interactions. Computers in Human Behavior, 68, 137-148.
-Spinrad, T. L., & Stifter, C. A. (2006). Toddlers' empathy‐related responding to distress: Predictions from negative emotionality and maternal behavior in infancy. Infancy, 10(2), 97-121.
-Weisz, E., & Zaki, J. (2017). Empathy building interventions: A review of existing work and suggestions for future directions. The Oxford handbook of compassion science, 205-217.

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