Empathy 101

Empathy plays a big role in our ability to relate and connect with others in personal, academic and professional settings as it helps us to treat others with kindness and respect. It’s the ability to see something or understand something from another person’s perspective. Empathy also means that we are able to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling and in a small way, have the feeling along with the other person.

Have you ever been in a room with a crying baby? Did you notice how you felt? Chances are you felt a little sad initially when the baby was crying. Have you ever been around a friend who is happily laughing at some bit of good news? You might have experienced some happiness too (or maybe even laughed along with your friend not even being sure why). This is what feeling empathy means.

We are actually built to naturally feel the feelings of those around us. Parents and babies or small children naturally and almost automatically share feelings. When a baby is upset, usually a parent feels uncomfortable. When an adult who is tense or upset is holding a baby, it is very common for the baby to become fussy and cry. Learning to be empathic usually happens naturally in environments that are safe, stable enough and support compassion.  This means that parents, caregivers, teachers and role models who show empathy towards other people will likely teach empathy to the children in their lives as a result.

In order to understand and respond to our feelings of empathy towards others, it is also essential that we have our own emotional awareness.  We need to know and understand our own emotions before we can imagine and take on someone else’s emotional experience. If you pay attention, you will probably notice that as you get to know yourself more and notice your own emotions, you will more easily understand others’ perspectives and feelings.  As teenagers, you are likely becoming more aware of yourselves and your own feelings.  That makes the teenage years an important time period for developing empathy, as well.

Sometimes empathy and sympathy are discussed together or used interchangeably. In fact, empathy and sympathy are quite different. Having sympathy for someone means that you notice they are experiencing a difficult situation and you feel concerned about them. Empathy goes beyond sympathy because it involves noticing and feeling the emotions of another person inside of yourself.

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