5 Reasons to Develop Your Empathy
“Empathy is the one weapon in the human repertoire that can rid us of the curse of xenophobia.” Frans B.M. de Waal, author, The Age of Empathy
Are We Living in The Age of Narcissism or the Age of Empathy?
Maybe it’s both.
For human beings, both are innate. Freud believed that narcissism was a normal developmental task necessary for a child to form a healthy sense of self-esteem. As the child ages, self-interest is balanced with mature goals, which include the positive regard and concern for others that is the essence of empathy.
In the language of pop psychology, the over-done and misunderstood label of “narcissist” is typically used to describe someone who is self-absorbed, self-possessed and self- serving.
In mythology, Narcissus was a handsome Greek youth who rejected the desperate advances of the nymph Echo. As punishment, he was doomed to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water.
The Discovery of Mirror Neurons is a Game Changer!
Speaking of mirrors – fast forward several thousand years to the (accidental) discovery in 1995 by Italian neuroscientist, Iaccomo Rizzolati, of “mirror neurons.”
Author of the excellent book, “Just Listen“ Mark Goulston, M.D. describes the discovery of mirror neurons as follows:
“(Italian Scientists) studying specific nerve cells in macaque monkeys’ prefrontal cortexes found that the cells fired when the monkeys threw a ball or ate a banana. But here’s the surprise: these same cells fired when the monkeys watched another monkey performing these acts. In other words, when Monkey #1 watched Monkey #2 toss a ball, the brain of the first monkey reacted just as if it had tossed the ball itself.
Scientists initially nicknamed these cells “monkey see, monkey do” neurons. Later they changed the name to mirror neurons, because these cells allow monkeys to mirror another being’s actions in their own minds.
The new name is more accurate, because we’re finding that humans, just like macaques, have neurons that act as mirrors. In fact, studies suggest that these remarkable cells may form the basis for human empathy. That’s because, in effect, they transport us into another person’s mind, briefly making us feel what the person is feeling. In a 2007 article titled, “The Neurology of Self-Awareness” in Edge, V. S. Ramachandran, a pioneer in mirror neuron research, commented, “I call these ’empathy neurons’ or ‘Dalai Lama neurons’ for they are dissolving the barrier between self and others.”
Empathy is “hot”
It is the subject of dozens of compelling articles and books exploring the implications of empathy – and a lack of – on our families, workplaces and our global society. In his latest book, “The Empathic Civilization” author Jeremy Rifkin declares that the discovery of mirror neurons will change the way in which we define human nature.
Curriculums in some medical and law enforcement programs are being redesigned to expand empathic skills to deepen the bonds of understanding. In the UK, “empathy” training is retooling the way service providers, like call centers, measure their bottom line success.
Empathy is our second nature, but it also fragile. A lack of proper nurturing of empathy in childhood, or the presence of certain brain disorders, like autism, can result in switched-off empathic abilities. We all run the risk of acquiring what has been referred to as “Empathy Deficit Disorder” (EDD). While we may have developed the foundations of empathy as children, we can become hardened and turned-off to people and events around us, as a form of psychological self-protection.
The formation of EDD doesn’t happen overnight. It is more like a gradual process of chipping away at our empathy core through the repetitive practice of erosive thoughts, beliefs, feelings and behaviors over time.
“Just as you can develop EDD by too much self-absorption, you can also overcome EDD by retraining your brain. That is, research also shows that your brain is capable of being trained and physically modified through conscious practices. This is known as neuroplasticity. You can “grow” specific emotions and create new brain patterns that reinforce them. As you redirect and refocus your thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the direction you desire, the brain regions associated with them are reinforced. What’s more, changing your brain activity reinforces the changes you’re making in your thoughts and emotions. The result is a self-reinforcing loop between your conscious attitudes, your behavior and your brain activity” Center for Adult Development, 2007
Empathy is a powerful emotion – and a powerful skill. It has the potential to transform your perspective on a dime. What you see in your world is largely filtered by your empathic lenses.
Our self-imposed empathic filters that monitor our world can sometimes be broken open by the jolt of personal crisis or a powerful external event. We can also commit to an on-going practice of a heart – mind opening process by consciously practicing development of our innate empathic muscles.
5 Reasons to Develop Empathy
- Empathy is the cornerstone of effective communication. It can expand understanding and convey values and recognition of needs (which is what every communication is essentially about).
- The ability to “step into another’s shoes” deepens and broadens our perspective-taking skills. We develop greater capacity to see outside of our own narrow windows on the world. When we do this, our relationship skills grow and our ability to generate creativity and ideas increases.
- Empathy begets other self-supportive emotions. When we cultivate greater empathy in our lives (for self – and others), we enable the triggers of other nurturing emotions like: contentment, satisfaction, confidence, courage, compassion and dare we say – love. Studies have shown that when we experience these emotions they act as an antidote to the detrimental hormones released from stress.
- Increasing your capacity for empathy is critical if you want to be a better listener – and increase your skill at responding to conflict. Empathy is the quintessential “joining” emotion. It can bring us together at an emotional level even when we disagree with another person. People in triggered “negative” emotional states can’t really hear and solve problems on a “rational” level until they switch from their emotional brains to their pre-frontal or thinking brains. Our ability to convey understanding through empathy can be instrumental in supporting that process.
- Demonstrating empathy is contagious. Yes, that’s true. Along with the discovery of mirror neurons, neuroscience has also found that emotions can be contagious. Road rage is a good example of anger contagion. New studies show that kindness and altruism can model positive feelings and behaviors in our workplaces, families and the society in general.
The conscious commitment to practice empathy in our lives will yield immediate and definite long term changes in our relationships, well-being and our world view. Seeing and acting through our empathy filters provides us with a very different way of being in the world.
In the next post, we’ll look at the barriers we create to acting more empathically. We will also explore practices that can activate our “empathy genes” and trigger those in others.
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Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants