We are all wired to be empathetic…

I think we are wired to be empathic by our Creator.  That would be all humans, in my opinion.  It doesn’t matter if they are male or female.  It matters little their religion or ethnicity.  All humans innately are wired to be empathetic. Clearly, socialization can and does change that. …  “Men don’t cry.”  “Be strong.”  Or worse, a father saying to his young son, “You dry those tears up or I’ll give you something to cry about.” 

But at birth we are wired by our Creator to be empathetic, too feel deeply the emotions of others — both their negative and positive emotions.  To many of us have been socialized to go to numb.  That’s why someone might truly say, “I don’t have any idea what I’m feeling.”  We thus resort to the learned, and safe, but unhelpful response: “I’m fine.”

There are some times, especially if I am really emotionally present, when I can actually “feel” another person’s feelings, almost as if I am going through it myself.  Have you ever experienced that? 

(Note:  Even though I am empathetic, I grew up in the Land of numb, where emotions often were swept under the carpet.  It was what it was.  So sometimes I still don’t know what I am feeling and struggle hard to know.  Thus, there are times when I, too, resort to saying, “I don’t have any idea what I’m feeling.”  But then I usually say, “Let me stay with that and see if I can find what it is I’m feeling.”)

Interestingly, and of significant note to me, of the 34 strengths in Tom Rath’s StrengthsFinder 2.0, empathy is near the top of my strengths. I’ve often been able to fairly accurately “read” what’s going in a meeting, for example.  I can often say, “See that guy sitting there.  He’s doing terrible.”  Sometimes I’m surprised at my accuracy.

Behavioral scientists generally describe two types of empathy.

  • Cognitive empathy, sometimes called “perspective-taking,” is a deliberate and conscious intellectual process whereby we observe others and use our imagination and logic to discern what they must be thinking and feeling.
  • Affective empathy, sometimes called “emotional empathy,” is a more spontaneous process that causes us to actually feel what others are feeling, as though their emotions were contagious. 

Thus, sometimes we are in relationship with, say, a person who feels plenty of guilt for his bad decisions.  But instead of holding it over him, we practice “cognitive empathy” and decide to quit reminding that person, in whatever ways, of how bad his decision was and the ripple affect that continues to show how awful his decision truly was.  No, instead we put his situation into perspective and practice ways to “make him feel better.”

Other times we practice “affective empathy.”  That would be like Ruth deciding, almost instantaneously, not to leave Naomi after Ruth lost her husband and her two sons.  Ruth sensed Naomi’s sorrow and wept with her, prompting her to say those famous words:

“Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you” Ruth 1

This Advent season I encourage you to enlist your faculties and try to be more empathetic.  

… Use your time.  Slow down a bit. Show that you’re happy to give others the time they need.

… Use your ears. Don’t just listen to others’ words, but also to their tone of voice, which often communicates what’s really going on.

… Use your eyes.   See the emotions in others’ eyes and on their faces (excitement, sadness, uncertainty, weariness, grief.).  Look at someone’s posture and body language. Are they slumping, pacing, cringing?  Body language often says what their words don’t.

… Use your imagination.   “How would I feel if I was in her shoes?”

… Use your instincts “What is he hiding, fearing, or really wanting to say?

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