Lesson 4 of 7 - optimize your relationships

How Empathic Are You?

 A Vital Factor in Your
Social Relationships

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

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The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/relate/empathy.htm

Updated  02-09-2015

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      This article is part of self-improvement Lesson 4 - ways to optimize your social relationships. The article starts with an informative Time magazine report on how people develop empathy. The rest of this article extends that report to propose....

  • the difference between empathy and sympathy;

  • key implications of being unable to empathize with other people;

  • a way to assess how empathic you are;

  • requisites for developing empathy;

  • practical options for increasing your empathy, and. 

  • how lack of parental wholistic health and empathy can promote an inability to feel, empathize, and love in young kids. 

      This article assumes you're familiar with:

  • the intro to this Web site and the premises underlying it;

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 3

  • inherited psychological wounds; and...

  • perspective on interpersonal bonding.

+ + +

Where Does Empathy Come From?

      This reprint offers a credible answer. The highlights are mine.

How Not to Raise a Bully:
The Early Roots of Empathy

By Maia Salacity

Time magazine, via Yahoo news - 4/17/2010

    Since the Jan. 14 2010 death of Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old in South Hadley, Mass., who committed suicide after being bullied by fellow students, many onlookers have meditated on whether the circumstances that led to her after-school hanging might have been avoided.

    Could teachers have stepped in and stopped the bullying? Could parents have done more to curtail bad behavior? Or could preventive measures have been started years ago, in early childhood, long before bullies emerged and started heaping abuse on their peers?

    Increasingly, neuroscientists, psychologists and educators believe that bullying and other kinds of violence can indeed be reduced by encouraging empathy at an early age. Over the past decade, research in empathy - the ability to put ourselves in another person's shoes - has suggested that it is key, if not the key, to all human social interaction and morality.

    Without empathy, we would have no cohesive society, no trust and no reason not to murder, cheat, steal or lie. At best, we would act only out of self-interest; at worst, we would be a collection of sociopaths.

    Although human nature has historically been seen as essentially selfish, recent science suggests that it is not. The capacity for empathy is believed to be innate in most humans, as well as some other species - chimps, for instance, will protest unfair treatment of others, refusing to accept a treat they have rightfully earned if another chimp doing the same work fails to get the same reward.

    The first stirrings of human empathy typically appear in babyhood: newborns cry when hearing another infant's cry, and studies have shown that children as young as 14 months offer unsolicited help to adults who appear to be struggling to reach something. Babies have also shown a distinct preference for adults who help rather than hinder others.

    But, like language, the development of this inherent tendency may be affected by early experience. As evidence, look no further than ancient Greece - at the millennia-old child-rearing practices of Sparta and Athens. Spartans, who were celebrated almost exclusively as warriors, raised their ruling-class boys in an environment of uncompromising brutality - enlisting them in boot camp at age 7, and starving them to encourage enough deviousness and cunning to steal food - which skillfully bred yet more generations of ruthless killers.

    In Athens, future leaders were brought up in a more nurturing and peaceful way, at home with their mothers and nurses, starting education in music and poetry at 6. They became pioneers of democracy, art, theater and culture. "Just like we can train people to kill, the same is true with empathy. You can be taught to be a Spartan or an Athenian - and you can taught to be both," says Teeny Gross, executive director of the outreach group Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence in Providence, R.I., and a former sergeant in the Israeli army.

    What the ancient Greeks intuited is supported by research today. Childhood - as early as infancy - is now known to be a critical time for the development of empathy. And although children can be astonishingly resilient, surviving and sometimes thriving despite abuse and neglect, studies show that those who experience such early trauma are at much greater risk of becoming aggressive or even psychopathic later on, bullying other children or being victimized by bullies themselves.

    Simple neglect can be surprisingly damaging. In 2007, researchers published the first randomized, controlled study of the effect of being raised in an orphanage; that study, and subsequent research on the same sample of Romanian orphans, found that compared with babies placed with a foster family, those who were sent to institutions had lower IQs, slower physical growth, problems with human attachment and differences in functioning in brain areas related to emotional development.

    Institutionalized infants do not experience being the center of a loving family's attention; instead, they are cared for a rotating staff of shift workers, which is inherently neglectful. Such children miss out on intensive, one-on-one affection and attachment with a parental figure, which babies need at that vulnerable age. Without that experience, they learn early on that the world is a cold, insecure and untrustworthy place. Their emotional needs having gone unmet, they frequently have trouble understanding or appreciating the feelings of others.

    Nearly 90% of brain growth takes place in the first five years of life, and the minds of young children who have been neglected or traumatized often fail to make the connection between people and pleasure. That deficit can make it difficult for them to feel or demonstrate love later on. "You can enhance empathy by the way you treat children," says Martin Hoffman, an emeritus professor of psychology at New York University and a pioneer of empathy research, "or you can kill it by providing a harsh punitive environment."

    The cold environment of an orphanage can be considered on a spectrum of punishment, at the other end of which is simple child discipline - an issue that sometimes confounds even the most mindful parents. How do you teach a child right from wrong without being too tough, or slipping into abuse? Who among us has not raised our voice - O.K., screamed - while disciplining our children?

    But shouting at or, worse, hitting a child results in fear, rather than an understanding on the child's part of why he or she is being punished, say researchers. Over the long term, the routine use of corporal punishment, such as spanking, not only fails to change behavior for the better, but has also been shown to increase aggression in children.

    "Instead of starting from the assumption that you have to beat the badness out of a child, turn on that empathy and compassion switch," says Dasher Kilter, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.

    In other words, start by teaching children to understand their own behavior and feelings - it provides the basic tools for understanding the behavior and feelings of others. For instance, when dealing with a child who has hurt another person, help him or her "anchor how they felt in the moment," says Mary Gordon, founder of Roots of Empathy, a school-based program designed to foster compassion. "We always think we should start with, 'How do you think so-and-so felt?' But you will be more successful if you start with, 'You must have felt very upset.' The trick is to help children describe how they felt, so that the next time this happens, they've got language. Now, they can say 'I'm feeling like I did when I bit Johnny.'"

    When children are able to understand their own feelings, they are closer to being able to understand that Johnny was also hurt and upset by being bitten - that "switch" is the spark for a change in behavior.

    But understanding suffering alone does not teach empathy, says Gordon, which helps explain why children who suffer more - enduring abuse at home, for instance - are more likely to become bullies. It's not that they don't know what it feels like to be hurt; it's that they have learned that violence is the way to express anger or assert power.

    In Gordon's Roots of Empathy program, which is currently being used in about 3,000 kindergartens, elementary schools and middle schools in Canada, and 40 schools in Seattle, children get to see a visiting parent and infant interact in the classroom about once a month, and watch the foundations of empathy being built. When the baby cries, the Roots of Empathy instructor helps the mother and students think about what might be bothering the baby and how to make things better.

    Students are taught that a crying baby isn't a bad baby, but a baby with a problem. By trying to figure out what's going on, the children learn to see the world through the infant's eyes, and to understand what it might be like to have needs but not be able to ex-press them clearly.

    "We love when we get a colicky baby," says Gordon, because then the mother usually tells the class how frustrating and annoying it is when the baby won't stop crying. That gives children insight into the parent's perspective - and how children's behavior can affect adults - something they have often never thought about. "If you look at the development of empathy, one of the key features is perspective-taking," says Gordon. "In coaching that skill, we help them [take the perspective of] their classmates."

    To date, nine separate studies have shown that Roots of Empathy has helped reduce bullying at school, and increased supportive behavior among students. Many school districts in the U.S., including New York City's, have recently expressed interest in using Gordon's approach.

Setting an Empathetic Example

    A child's individual capacity for empathy can further be encouraged when parents model empathic behavior themselves. When parents treat other people with compassion, selflessness and a lack of judgment, children copy those behaviors. "Empathy can't be taught, but it can be caught," says Gordon.

    Her own family was a shining example. As a young girl in Newfoundland, Gordon says she grew up in a large, multigenerational family - including four siblings, two grandparents and a mentally disabled uncle - that also often included "strays." Her parents liked to take in people in need: unmarried pregnant women who had no place to go, recently released prisoners who would stop by for a free meal. Gordon also tagged along with her mother, an artist (Gordon's father was the Canadian minister of labor), as she visited poor families in the community, bringing them food, clothing and coal for heat.

    When young Mary sneered and asked why a woman stored coal in her bathtub instead of bathing in it, her mother admonished her - but in private. "My mom would never embarrass anyone, so she wouldn't embarrass me as a child either. She saw the dignity in everybody," Gordon says. "In the car, she said, 'You judged that woman when you made that face.' She would say, 'She's made the best decisions she could with the challenges she has, and you don't know her challenges.'"

    Not every child is raised by a Mother Gordon. But even children who have survived rough environments - like the gang members Teeny Gross of the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence works with in Providence - can be helped to "catch" empathy.

    Gross has found that his outreach workers are most successful when they build relation-ships based on caring and fairness. "People have a sense of justice," Gross says, explaining why even troubled teens respond well when counselors, with whom they have an ongoing relationship, take a firm stance with them regarding their behavior. "[Our kids are] used to injustice; they're used to abuse at school and from the police. But when constraints come from a place of love and caring, people don't think it violates their sense of justice."

    Gross's program focuses on introducing young men and boys in gangs to a new network of people who not only care about them, but do so dependably - providing the kind of secure environment that many of them missed in childhood. By employing former gang members to mentor the troubled boys, Gross makes it easier for them to foster relationships of mutual understanding and connection with one another.

    Mentors show up consistently at the boys' important events - court dates, funerals - demonstrating care and concern. They also organize social outings for the boys, like a trip to a local beach last summer for a day of surfing. That excursion purposefully included boys from rival gangs, in the hopes that the introductions could help reduce violence later on.

    Indeed, research shows that simple exposure to other kinds of people in a friendly setting can increase your empathy toward them. Although some gangsters and sociopaths may never be reachable, Gross holds out hope. He points to statistics such as the near halving of the U.S. murder rate over the last 20 years that suggest a "different life is possible. It's not easy, but a lot of it is common sense," he says.

Salacity is the co-author of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential - and Endangered (Morrow, April 2010).

      Notice where your mind goes now - what are you aware of?

 Implications and Applications

      Before examining key implications of the article above, reflect: can you describe the difference between sympathy and empathy?

Sympathy vs. Empathy

       If you haven't experienced something similar to what another person has, you may be able to sympathize (intellectually understand) them somewhat. If you have had a similar experience, you may be able to empathize with (understand + feel) the other person's experience. For example: no matter how sensitive men and childless women are, they cannot fully empathize with a new mother's experience of pregnancy and childbirth the way another mother can.

      Ms. Salacity's article above proposes that...

  • empathy is a learned personality trait which is essential for satisfying human relationships.

  • young children are directly affected by the degree of empathy their caregivers model and teach.

  • parents and teachers who proactively teach young kids how to identify and understand their - and other people's - feelings in various situations help kids develop empathy, and...

  • young children traumatized by adult neglect and abuse tend to show aggressive behavior (e.g. "bullying") later.


      The implications of these research-based ideas are profound.

Parental Responsibility

      One implication is that unempathic (psychologically wounded) parents are unlikely to encourage empathy in their kids, so this developmental deficit is apt to pass down the generations and weaken society.

      A related implication is that effective parents need to be aware of (a) young kids' developmental needs; and of (b) how their own behavior (like empathy and respect) is affecting their kids psycho-social growth.

      The  article above doesn't mention the equal importance of helping young kids to develop self awareness, self and mutual respect, and non-egotistical personal pride. Empathy without self-respect and self-love can mute or distort genuine altruism and compassion.

      These research findings suggest the high need for teachers and coaches to be (a) self-aware; (b) educated on "the roots of empathy," and (c) motivated to help students develop it. The findings also suggests the value of teaching family and school counselors, social workers, daycare and church-school staffs, family-life educators, coaches, and pediatricians about empathy-development.

      The article above helps to explain why most survivors of low-nurturance childhoods have difficulty communicating and solving relationship problems effectively. The core of effective communication is personal and social awareness, which is needed to sustain two-person ''awareness bubbles.''

      Premise - early-childhood trauma causes psychological wounds, including being unable to feel, love, empathize, and bond appropriately with other people. So a final implication of these research findings is that psychologically-wounded people may think they're empathic, but don't know what genuine empathy feels like. So they feel "normal," and are unlikely to (a) admit or seek help for this crippling deficit, or to (b) teach and model true empathy for their kids.

      Note that without genuine empathy, compassion and altruism are impossible.

      These implications suggest important questions for you - specially if you care for young kids:

  • How empathic were each of the adults who raised me (low > high)?

  • How empathic am I?

  • How empathic is (or was) my partner?

  • Are my kids' adults modeling and teaching empathy effectively?

  • Is lack of awareness and empathy causing me any significant relationship problems? If so, what are they, and what do I need to do now?

  • Can empathy be intentionally developed?

Empathy and Interpersonal Bonding

      One of six psychological wounds that can result from major early-childhood neglect, abandonment, and abuse ("trauma") is an inability to feel, bond, and exchange real love with other people. It's  likely that trauma survivors acquire this wound if (a) they have the other five, and (b) their caregiving adults were unable to model genuine empathy and teach it to their child/ren.

      Society and the media are generally unaware of this parental deficit. They (we) call unempathic people insensitive, uncaring, cold, aloof, antisocial, phony, emotionally unavailable, self-centered, Narcissistic, selfish, egotistical, sociopaths, and psychopaths. These are undeserved shaming labels. Better labels are "wounded" and "unaware." Psychologically-wounded people merit compassion (which requires empathy), not criticism and scorn!

      It's possible (or probable?) that mental-health conditions like "Reactive Attachment Disorder" (RAD) and "Asperger's Syndrome" are symptoms of psychologically-wounded and unempathic early-childhood caregivers. If so, these conditions deserve informed family therapy, not individual,.

      Do you know anyone who is unable to feel, bond, and love?. If so, consider referring them to this article and Lesson 1 in this nonprofit Web site.

How Empathic are You?

      Truly empathic people exhibit notable behaviors and traits. How many of these typical traits would people who know you say you have?. If you have significant psychological wounds, you may sincerely believe you have these traits but you really don't (reality distortion).

      Don't check a trait unless you can check all subtraits. If you're not sure of a trait, use "?". Options - (1) ask trusted people who know you to verify your answers here' (2) Use this checklist to evaluate the empathy of someone else.

__ I'm very clear now on the difference between empathy and sympathy.

__  Each of the adults who raised me _ consistently demonstrated empathy, and _ taught me how to recognize and name human emotions.

__  I'm able to _ feel the full range of human emotions. _ I rarely say "I don't know what I feel now."

__  On a "personal awareness" scale of 1 (very unaware) to 10 (very aware), I rate myself recently as a ___.

__  I'm _ aware of typical primary human needs, and _ I'm usually able to accurately sense what other people need now and over time.

__  I rarely distort personal or social reality.

__  can clearly describe the difference between guilt, shame, and embarrassment.

__  I'm an empathic listener in most social situations.

__  I can usually maintain my personal center and boundaries around significantly-emotional kids and adults.

__  I see all emotions as natural and useful, not "positive" or "negative."

__  I respect the dignity and worth of every person, regardless of their age, gender, opinions, role/s, and actions.

__ I normally see "difficult" people (rude, self-centered, dishonest, manipulative, aggressive, scared, 'obnoxious,' etc) as "psychologically-wounded and unaware," rather than "bad." (That doesn't mean I approve of their behaviors).

__  I can usually maintain a two-person ''awareness bubble'' in most social situations.

__  I can clearly describe the difference between anger and frustration.

__  I am often able to feel (vs. understand) what kids and other adults feel.

__  I'm often able to sense (vs. analyze) what an emotional person needs;

__  I notice other people's facial and body language and their voice dynamics in most social situations. 

__ On an "empathy scale" of 1 (very unempathic) to 10 (very empathic), I'd rank myself as a ___.

      What did you just learn?

Can Empathy Be Developed?

      My experience suggests "yes," if the person...

  • is committed to reducing any significant psychological wounds - specially false-self dominance and difficulty bonding with other people; and...

  • s/he stays clear on the difference between sympathy and empathy and...

  • s/he is steadily motivated to improve personal awareness - including ''awareness bubbles'' with various people in different situations; and if s/he...

  • practices noticing, naming, and expressing her/his own feelings; and if s/he...

  • learns and practices empathic listening with various adults and kids; and s/he...

  • intentionally notices how other people practice and express empathy - or don't; and...

  • s/he occasionally asks for honest (vs. polite) feedback from other people, like "Do you feel I'm reasonably empathic?" and...

  • s/he works steadily at a personal parts-work strategy like this one.

      Major benefits from patiently doing these things include more effective communication, more satisfying relationships, and increasing self-confidence and self respect. Would you like those?


      This article offers perspective on the essential personal ability to empathize with other people. It adds several things to an informative article from Time magazine on where this ability comes from:

  • the difference between empathy and sympathy;

  • key implications of being unable to empathize with other people;

  • a way to assess how empathic you are;

  • requisites for developing empathy;

  • practical options for increasing your empathy, and. 

  • how lack of parental wholistic health and empathy can promote an inability to feel, empathize, and love in young kids. 

  Learn something about yourself with this anonymous 1-question poll.

      Reflect: why did you read this - did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your wise resident true Self or ''someone else''?

 This article was very helpful  somewhat helpful  not helpful   

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