What is empathy?
As a parent, one of the most important traits that should be instilled in children is empathy. So what is empathy? According to psychologytoday.com, “Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. Empathy is known to increase prosocial (helping) behaviors. While American culture might be socializing people into becoming more individualistic rather than empathic, research has uncovered the existence of “mirror neurons,” which react to emotions expressed by others and then reproduce them.” Now lets explore more deeply into empathy.
There are three types of empathy. The first is a form of empathy that allows one to take the perspective of another. This is being able to see things from another’s point of view. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It is important to better understand where someone is coming from, but it’s not what we typically think of as empathy. My favorite way to explain this to the kids is to treat others the way you want to be treated, The Golden Rule. This principle is widely accepted or practiced in many cultures or faiths across the world. It can be used to manage conflicts quite well.
A second type of empathy, is one that is represented by personal distress, literally. Personal distress is literally feeling another’s emotions. When you are watching a scary movie, and you start to feel afraid with a character, that is personal distress in action. You are actually feeling the other person’s emotion through a process called “emotional contagion.” The actor, or another person, is actually “infecting” you with their emotion. We all experience personal distress, but too much of it may not be a good thing. Some people are so prone to feeling other’s emotional states, that they are ‘distressed’ by it.
The third type of empathy is known as empathic concern. This type is what we most often think about when we hear the term “empathy.” It is the ability to recognize another’s emotional state, feel in tune with that emotional state, and if it is a negative/distressful emotion, feel and show appropriate concern. I see it as validating and recognizing how someone is feeling. For instance, when my son doesn’t want to go to bed, and starts to throw a tantrum, I can empathize with him. I can respond by telling him that I know ‘it’s really hard to stop playing, and put your toys away, and you wish you had more time, but getting a good nights sleep is important.’ He responds to that much better than being demanded to go to bed. I recognize that he is tired, but that he is trying to use every ounce of energy left to play as long as possible, and wants to control his bed or play time!
Whenever I succeed at showing empathy something else happens. It not only shows my children that I love them, it also teaches me something about loving them. It allows me a chance to step into their shoes and realize that a lost toy is a huge deal in their world and mind. Without empathy, we communicate to our children that their feelings and emotions don’t matter. That is the last lesson I want to be teaching any one.