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How to increase empathy for others through awareness and compassion for self

How to increase empathy

Understanding empathy 

To increase empathy, we first need to seek to understand it. At the most basic level, empathy is the ability to feel what others feel, at a physical and emotional level, to have a profound attunement to someone.

That’s different from sympathy. For example, we could feel pity: I can’t imagine what it would be like; I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes.

In its purest sense, empathy is that right hemisphere to right hemisphere communication. There’s a resonance between you and someone else – universally seen in the relationship between mother and infant. 

empathy between mother and infant

Empathy and Empath Blind Spots

Empathy isn’t all rosy. When it isn’t grounded in emotional maturity, blind spots can develop:

Empathy overload: 

If we take on board the feelings of others, we can become overwhelmed by those feelings. We become so dysregulated that we now become the focus. Empathy overload can occur with individuals that have lower levels of self-regulation. It’s like too much power flowing through a system, and the system can’t handle it. 

Exploiting empathy: 

People can manipulate others by using empathy to understand and ensure their mental and emotional state. When this happens, misuse of empathy occurs for selfish reasons to help us get an advantage over others.

Why a lack of empathy can happen

Cynicism: 

When someone has experienced so much pain that they’ve experienced a level of empathy ‘shut down.’ Their heart has shut down and they feel unable to risk trusting people again. It’s a biological threat or for them to see ‘the other’ in a way that isn’t cynical.

Why it happens: People often have good reasons for cynicism.

These include a loss of trust, anxiety, depression or being in a constant state of survival (fight or flight mode). Empathy becomes something that requires more resources than you have to give if you’re always focused on surviving.

There are also situations where we need empathy ‘shut down’, e.g., being a paramedic or a trauma surgeon. It’s not that you don’t care. But if you’re too overwhelmed by what you see, you lose objectivity and cannot help.

Dehumanisation: 

Our ability to feel and understand people’s experiences is lower. Dehumanisation tends to occur more when people seem ‘different to us’ or are physically far away. For example, if we watch an international disaster or conflict on the news.

Why it happens: One reason is that one of the key ways to develop empathy is through connection, dialogue, and meaningful relationships with others. 

social distancing sign

Ways to increase empathy

Thankfully, there isn’t a complicated formula or process. Though, these suggestions are easier said than done. Basically, through intention in our relationships with other human beings and ourselves, we have an opportunity to increase empathy. 

Emotional development: 

We need to think about empathy as fundamental to human relationships. At the same time, it’s not a rigid, static routine you have to do – it’s more fluid. Our emotional maturity determines the level of fluidity. How far we’ve come on our inner journey – understanding our history and healing our wounds – will often liberate a more mature empathy.

Compassion through curiousity: 

When we find someone in our life who is cynical, it’s not a character flaw. It’s often a defense against pain. So rather than drawing our conclusions on their cynicism, we can be curious and open about why they might be so cynical about something or why they are so passionate about a stance they’ve taken.

Empathy breeds empathy: 

People’s ability to empathise can rapidly shift just from having another human being sit with them and hear their perspectives or experiences. If they feel accepted and affirmed, they are more likely to hold that space for others.

two people looking at each other holding hands to increase empathy

Empathy for others starts with compassion for self

Getting our houses in order: 

Starting with ourselves by having a deep curiousity about things such as our life experiences, the areas we live in, the media we consume, the people we surround ourselves with, and how these things have informed our views of the world, what brings us joy and what makes us tick.

From there, commit to investing in yourself. Figure out what that means for where you’re at (not what you think you should be doing or what others are doing), and make personal development a priority. Working through some of your stuff, and importantly, increasing compassion and empathy for yourself will pay dividends in every arena of your life.

Feeling connected: 

Reach out for guidance and find mentors (they don’t always have to be registered psychologists or professional coaches). 

Wisdom can be anywhere – we now live in a global village with video calls – e.g., contacting the author of a great book to understand more about their perspective.

Often it’s hard for us to access this kind of guidance and support friends or family, not because they’re not empathetic, but because of the nature of those relationships. We need to find people we connect with yet are objective and point out our blind spots. It’s the relationship that heals. 

To increase empathy, we need first to grow ourselves so that all of us can grow. Be fearless and courageous in that – you owe it to yourself.  

strong young woman looking at camera

Episode 1 inspires this post: Empathy and Empaths with Dr Abdul Saad (click here to listen to the full episode).

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