In a world that can be cruel, where anything can go wrong, where we all face trials and tribulations why do we devalue empathy as a society?
Empathy in communication is needed for stronger relationships, it leads to more compassion, a boost in happiness, and so much more!
The New York Times states “More and more, we live in bubbles. Most of us are surrounded by people who look like us, vote like us, earn like us, spend money like us, have educations like us and worship like us. The result is an empathy deficit, and it’s at the root of many of our biggest problems (Miller).”
Empathy is one of those things that most people want, but don’t pay attention to whether they are doing it, as well.
Empathy vs Sympathy
Sometimes people confuse empathy with sympathy. Sympathy is just feeling bad for someone and most people don’t want a pity party. Empathy is you try and feel their pain imagining what it might be like to go through their struggles with what they have been through in the past. It is a lot harder, especially if you haven’t been in any of those situations before. But there are questions to ask and things to say that can help even if you don’t get it. It is also about being able to recognize when someone is sharing something deep, emotional and know that this is where empathy is needed.
We judge the world through a lens of our own experience, the culture we grew up in, and the lifestyle we have led without taking a step back and imagining what it might be like to have grown up in other unideal conditions. We ALL struggle with it, myself included. I do actually try though, and I understand struggles of being anxious, depressed, sick, or in pain. But I still want to be better at it, there is always room for improvement.
I am naturally an empath and can absorb other’s feelings that are not my own, but it actually happens more naturally with other empaths like my husband. I have learned how to close myself off to it when it isn’t people close to me. But I’m better at it when I know a person is empathetic towards me. However, if no one tries than nothing can change! So I try.
MOST People Are Not Really Taught Empathy
We might have never really been taught about empathy depending on our circumstances in our life. We need exposure to it early on in life and most parents are not teaching it because adults struggle too. That’s why many people struggle in relationships and need counseling. We should be taught empathy in school! Don’t you think you would hear less stories of bullying, gun violence, and other cruel things?
Students in Denmark have mandatory empathy classes as part of the school curriculum. How about this? Not only do they learn how to conceptualize their own feelings, but they learn how to read others emotions, utilize empathy, problem solve more effectively, and have better self-control.
It seems as though people can do well at empathy when they know someone is struggling with a death of a loved one, but there are so many more places in society where empathy is needed!
Where Empathy is Needed – Everywhere!
Chronic Illness Community has A LOT to Say About Society NOT Being Empathetic
I have been helping manage a social media account for years that is full of chronic pain sufferers and they share all the time in blogs and posts about the lack of empathy they receive with regards to their pain. It is painful to read about how doctors tell them they are faking it or give them strange looks when they talk about their many symptoms, they tell them there is nothing wrong, or make them feel like it is their fault.
Some people feel like it is their fault, but many just feel the sting of being told is their fault even when they know it is not. Also, when a person struggles with anxiety and depression their mind can trick them into feeling like it is their fault. But either way it is horrible to deal with the physical, mental, emotional, financial struggles of an illness and then also hear that it is your fault. It can make it harder to seek help.
For myself, I didn’t really go too far down that road as I did find treatments to help. But I just rarely have wanted to talk about the pain. By not bringing attention to it, I found it easier to not go down a rabbit of feeling more despair about it. Which has worked out really well, but I still have my empathetic people who get it when I have needed to complain. And of course there are times I have opened up and got no sympathy, no empathy, no nothing, and I wish I never said anything. It is easier not to talk about it because I can go too deep feeling empathy for myself.
Society in General
Many chronic pain sufferers are told their lazy, sometimes people look at them weird when they have to use a wheelchair even though they appear to look young and healthy. It’s awful. But no one signs up for pain that leaves them stuck in bed all day, you would have to be crazy to want that! These people put up with way more than pain. It isn’t like taking sick day for a cold or flu, it is often much worse than that and it doesn’t just clear up and go away.
Chronic illness also has a way of tearing apart people’s self esteem as people can’t fulfill society’s expectations of them. If a person has dealt with chronic illness for a extremely long time and hasn’t become bitter toward the world or self absorbed that is a huge accomplishment in itself.
Empathy is also lost on people who struggle with drug addictions, alcohol addiction, and being obese.
Many times with addictions, abuse, extreme obesity, or even a chronic illness, people may have grew up in unfavorable circumstances. They might of been surrounded all their lives with people that made them feel bad about themselves. Then society shakes their head at them, as well.
Some might actually be willing to get help if they just have one person that sees them, searches for the root of what led them down the path, has empathy for what led them down the path, and listens in a nonjudgemental way. Additionally, they could boost up the person’s self esteem making them feel like they can be a real value to society.
A lot of doctors think that they are doing the right thing just pushing treatments, lifestyle changes, and pills (medicine or supplements) to heal a person. Placing an obese person on a diet without addressing why they were overeating in the first place can be ineffective. They are missing the ROOT CAUSE of a person’s issues.
A lot of these people may have trauma and things to work through that they don’t even know how to talk about, or may not realize they have the trauma stored up in their unconscious. It doesn’t mean doctors need to all turn into therapists, but they need to ask the right questions and provide just enough empathy to build up trust and help a person to feel seen. They can then provide resources to help the person.
Psychologists will say a lot of struggle in relationships comes out of miscommunication. AND empathy is an essential tool in effective communication. James V. Cordova Ph.D. on Psychology Today states that a lot of us think that we are good at communication when we are actually not. He says, “We are mostly deaf and mostly blind when it comes to understanding each other.” He also states, “It is a monumental challenge to understand ourselves and an even greater challenge to understand each other (Cordova Ph.D, 2011).” That makes a lot of sense, we need to understand how we respond and react in different situations and how it is different from the other person. Empathy is a great tool to help bridge that gap.
Empathy When it Comes to Politics
The division between democratic and republican has never been larger. The judgement and the way people attack each other has become crazy extreme. It got even worse in 2020. It is even happening with many people who label themselves as Christians and instead of “Love your neighbor as yourself” they are brutal to people who don’t share their same viewpoints.
To have a healthy political discussion without someone becoming overly emotional is often a rare thing. No one is going to change their mind about their political viewpoints in the midst of a fight. But if each person tries to understand the other person’s point of view, then it is possible for someone to change their opinions on a political topic. But at least both parties can find some understanding. That is part of empathy – seeing it from the other person’s point of view.
How Can We Improve at Empathy?
As we probably all know someone going through something challenging, it is important to practice empathy.
Usually, “I’m sorry you have to go through this, I feel for you” can work for a lot of things. Sometimes people need to hear, “it’s not your fault.” Just agreeing with a person can be HUGE! Statements such as “I can understand why you feel that way,” “I would feel that way too,” or “I think you have the right to feel that way.” If you have a similar story and share it that can be effective, but it can also feel like your taking attention away from that person’s struggles. If your story is not similar, it can go south quick making the person feel less understood. Giving people some empathetic statements first is best!
1. Tell them how much you appreciate them confiding in you.
2. Ask questions to reiterate how they are feeling.
3. Boost them up by pointing out their strength.
4. Ask if you can do anything to help them (don’t provide unsolicited advice)
5. Validate! Say you understand how they feel and why they would feel that way.
There is a great article on what to say and what not to say: 31 Empathetic Statements for When You Don’t Know What to Say.
This doesn’t exactly fit as a preventative health concept, but it can definitely help in developing stronger relationships with people, which is super beneficial to your health. By practicing it, you may receive it back when you find yourself desperately needing it! As more people than ever before are struggling with anxiety, depression, and chronic illness, our society needs to be more empathetic.
I try not to be upset at people for not being empathetic, I usually brush it off. But there has been a few times I’ve pointed it out and received no responses or weirdness because of it. That’s one of the reasons I’m saying people devalue empathy. If someone points it out to me, I would apologize and work to improve upon it. It would make me feel bad, but I would want to improve so that if I face a similar situation I can handle it better.
Miller, Claire Cain. New York Times/How to Be More Empathetic. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/guides/year-of-living-better/how-to-be-more-empathetic
Cordova Ph.D., James V. (2011, September 9). Psychology Today/Healthy Miscommunication. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/living-intimately/201109/healthy-miscommunication
Joeseph, Jisha. (2023, January 13). Upworthy/Students in Denmark have mandatory empathy classes as part of the school curriculum. Retrieved from: https://scoop.upworthy.com/students-learn-empathy-in-denmark-schools-492761
Chang, Shawn. (2022, November 7). The University of British Columbia/ 5 types of empathetic responses you can try. Retrieved from: https://students.ubc.ca/ubclife/emotional-intelligence-101-empathetic-responses
I am a business owner, marketer, innovator, writer, and artist. I have a passion for wellness with a wealth of knowledge surrounding: wellness, flaws in healthcare, root causes for chronic illnesses, and alternative treatments. My expertise includes over 5 years of marketing, research, and developing content for holistic health businesses. Plus, my own personal journey of becoming chronically sick: understanding what went wrong, and finding a way to heal and live a healthier life.