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Understanding Empathy and How to Create More of it in Your Life

Why is it important to understand empathy? What is it and why should we care (literally)?

We might feel sorry when something bad happens to others. We might even feel sad when others suffer. Sympathy is often confused with empathy. Sympathy is feeling pity or sorrow for the suffering of others. Unlike sympathy, empathy, as defined by the Cambridge Dictionary is the ability to share someone else's feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person's situation. We have all heard the phrase, "what it would be like to be in another person's shoes?"

Empathy can be categorized into 3 different types, depending on how we relate to the person suffering. Learning how to be empathetic to others doesn't only benefit the person you are empathizing with, but benefits you too.

The 3 types of empathy are cognitive, emotional, and compassionate.

Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand how another feels and what they might be thinking. This helps us to be better communicators as we relay information and ask questions to the person suffering.

Emotional empathy is the ability to share in the feelings of another person. This type of empathy helps us to connect to another emotionally.

Compassionate empathy (empathetic concern) is the ability to understand and feel the pain of another and it motivates us to do something, take action to help the person suffering.

We can tap into these 3 different types of empathy, depending on the situation.

Sure, we can work on being more caring and kind, but why do we need more empathy in our lives? According to Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, Jamil Zaki, empathy is actually decreasing in our culture. Isolation, increased stress, and the negative effects of social media have all changed our ability to practice empathy. In his book, The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, he studies and talks about how empathy affects brain chemistry and overall happiness. We have learned that increasing our capacity to be more empathetic increases our overall happiness. It comes from the idea that we all want to be connected to something greater than ourselves, and empathy is a route to get there.

We don't wake up everyday and expect to be in the best shape naturally. We exercise and work out our bodies and strengthen our muscles. In the same way, we can work out our empathy muscles and find ways to strengthen that part of our brain.

Some helpful exercises can be implemented in your life to help you become a more empathetic person.

1. Mindful kindness - You can practice being mindful and get yourself into a meditative state and recall or think of others in a loving-kind way. Think of the people in your life and offer them loving kindness in your thoughts and mind.

2. Self-compassion - Before you can understand the feelings of others, you need to be aware of your feelings and have compassion towards yourself to increase your ability to be empathetic. A simple feelings wheel can help you identify and articulate your feelings.

3. Books or movies - This is a great way to understand and feel for people even in a fictional or non-fictional settings. We can achieve awareness and understand others if we hear their story. It will help remove judgment and create love and empathy for others.

Our world is shaped by the people who dare to lead it. Often the ones with the loudest voice set the tone in the environment. The ones that are the loudest are not always the kindest. If we can be leaders who have a loud voice for kindness we can start re-building empathy in our environment. You can start by being empathic with yourself and then extend it to others.


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