what empathy means

What empathy means (And why it is more important than ever in 2020)

“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.” – Alfred Adler

Have you ever taken time to close your eyes and imagine you were seeing the world through the eyes of someone else?  Wondered what their heart felt like as it beat inside their chest? Felt the weight of their emotional journey?

Empathy is an incredibly pressing matter as we head into a new election season.  A person’s able to be empathetic toward other people is a key part of who they are, and many people might not realize just how important it is.

It is also an important component of the mental health journey.  To be able to heal fully from our own struggles, it’s necessary to learn to act empathetically toward others.

Important quotes about empathy

“The greatest cruelty is our casual blindness to the despair of others.” – Anonymous

“This is a wonderful planet, and it is being completely destroyed by people who have too much money and power and no empathy.” – Alice Walker

“Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?” –  Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

“Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the wrong. Sometime in life you will have been all of these.” –  George Washington Carver

Let these quotes marinate for a while.  Take a few minutes to let them stir something in your heart.

In this post, I am going to discuss

  • Why empathy is important
  • Empathy vs compassion
  • Sympathy and empathy
  • How to prevent a lack of empathy in children
  • Why changing your mind shouldn’t be a source of shame
  • Some ways to heal and protect yourself in this troubling time

Keep reading with an open mind, and most of all, with an open heart.

This post contains affiliate links. That means that if you click a link and make a purchase, I receive a small commission at no additional cost to you. See my Privacy and Affiliate Disclaimer pages for more info.

Also, I am not a doctor or mental health professional. Just someone who has lived with anxiety for many years who is passionate about sharing her experiences and tips for success. If you are in crisis call your doctor, then click here for some good mental health resources.

The selected Optin Cat form doesn’t exist.

Why empathy is important

There are so many benefits to being an empathetic person.  According to VeryWell Mind, some of the benefits are: 

  1. Improved social connections.  Being social benefits you mentally and physically.  The more empathetic you are, the more you are able to connect with others.
  2. Enhanced emotional regulation. It is proven to help you manage your own emotions, even in times of overwhelming stress.
  3. Becoming a more helpful person. The world needs more helpers, and creating a culture of empathy is a key way to achieve that.

And those are just some of the benefits you can experience by practicing empathy.  There are also benefits that others can experience by your shift in mindset.  

The world is currently incredibly broken.  No matter what side of the aisle you sit on, I think we can all agree on that.  Sometimes it seems like there are not enough bandaids in the world to heal it.  But you learning to be more empathetic is an excellent start.

That doesn’t mean you have to give up your values.  It doesn’t mean you have to change your belief system necessarily.  All it means, for a start, is that you take a deep breath and start a dialogue.  

what empathy means, a blog post called "What empathy means (And why it is more important than ever in 2020)," a black and white picture of two people holding hands

Empathy vs compassion

Before we continue, let’s talk about a couple confusing points of terminology.  First of all, the difference between empathy and compassion.

On the surface, they are incredibly similar, aren’t they?  They both involved feeling bad for someone in a difficult situation.  But when we dig deep, there are some differences to keep in mind.

Better Up says: “So what makes compassion different? Unlike empathy, compassion creates emotional distance from the individual and the situation we’re facing.”

The purpose of empathy is creating closeness with another person facing a struggle that is different from your own.  It is meant to draw people together.  

By the above definition, compassion is feeling bad for someone and wishing you could help.  It says, “They are experiencing X thing, which I am not.  I cannot imagine what they are feeling, because I have never felt it.”

Empathy on the other hand says, “They are experiencing X thing, so let me imagine what that would be like if it was me.  I cannot imagine what they are feeling, so let me sit with them and try to understand.”

why empathy is important,  a blog post called "What empathy means (And why it is more important than ever in 2020)," a black and white picture of two people holding hands

Not sure if what you are feeling is empathy?

VeryWell Mind gives the following indicators:

  • You are very good at listening to others.
  • People share their problems with you.
  • You are good at picking up on how other people are feeling.
  • You often think about how other people feel.
  • Other people come to you for advice.
  • Often, you feel overwhelmed by news headlines and tragic events.
  • You try to help others who are in emotional pain.
  • You are good at recognizing when people are lying.
  • Sometimes, you feel drained or overwhelmed in social situations.
  • You truly care about other people.
  • You find it difficult to set boundaries in your relationships with other people.

If any of these sound like you, you are likely a person for which empathy comes naturally.

If you need to work on this skill, this is not a place of judgment.  The purpose of this post is not to further polarize people.  It’s to shed light on something that could be massively restorative to our collective soul if we open our minds.

Sympathy and empathy

Two other commonly confused terms are sympathy and empathy.  For instance, “I can sympathize,” or “I can empathize.”  Sympathy is a bit like compassion, in that it creates distance between the two parties involved.  Here is an example of this in action:

You see a news story of a mother who has lost a child to police brutality.  A sympathetic reaction would be saying, “That’s sad.”  Especially if you say, “That’s sad, but…”

An empathetic reaction would be, “What if that was my own child.  She must be feeling XYZ,” and immediately feeling the things that she would feel.

It is easy to mistake the two.  And while people who have sympathetic reactions might have the best of intentions, these reactions are not helpful to the people in the negative situation.  Sympathy does nothing to ease their suffering.  On the other hand an empathetic reaction lets the person suffering know that the other person is listening and helps to validate their feelings.

If you need help working through some of your feelings, download this free PDF here:

How to prevent a lack of empathy in children

I’m not a psychiatrist, or sociologist, or any sort of trained professional.  But what I have noticed just by being a part of the human experience in 2020 is that it is difficult to change someone’s mind once it is made up.

We are all raised with a core set of values and beliefs.  Whether it is intentional or more subconsciously, our parents teach up things that we soak in and often carry into adulthood.  Some people choose to fight against those principles.  Others adopt them and carry on the tradition.

Neither method is necessarily wrong.  The purpose of this post is not to shame people who carry on family traditions, and I don’t think that’s constructive.  What is constructive is just to begin by identifying how you developed your value system.  Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you believe the same things as your parents did?
  • Do you believe differently?
  • Is it easy for you to adapt to changes in societal belief systems?
  • Do you find adapting to change difficult?

Like I said, none of these makes you a bad person.  But I think it’s important to recognize where your beliefs originated.

Children are the future.

One thing we can all agree on is that children are the future.  That’s just a fact.  Older generations are dying, baby boomers are by and large in control, and millennials are taking their place gradually.  One day, the children of millennials will be paving the way in the private and public sectors.

How can we prepare them to lead while protecting their hearts and minds against outdated prejudices, and teach them to lead with empathy?

  1. The first step is to teach them that they are allowed to make up their own minds, and that you will not be disappointed if they choose to do so.
  2. We also need to practice kindness ourselves.  Kids are sponges and soak up things that their parents do and say.  If you want to raise an empathetic child, you need to be empathetic yourself.
  3. Give them access to educational materials about different cultures and ideas.  Do not shelter children from experiencing the different ways that people live.
  4. Let them travel.  Take them places where they can immerse themselves in cultures that are different from their own.
  5. Finally, teach them to be confident in who they are. There are links between insecurities and developing prejudices that parents need to be aware of.

Change is not something to be ashamed of

Please understand that if you are reading this and feeling as if you need to change your mindset, know that you do not need to feel ashamed.

Obviously, I can’t control how you feel.  Your emotions are your own, not mine to manage.

But it is my hope that you can humbly accept this task I’m challenging you with and really dig deep.  If you thought about the four questions I asked above, and discovered that yes, you have adopted outdated values from previous generations and want to change: Don’t worry.  Change is possible and you shouldn’t be ashamed of it.

Sometimes change can feel really uncomfortable.  And in the case of the current racial tensions, changing what we think is uncomfortable because it admits something people struggle with: Our parents and grandparents were wrong.

I understand that this is challenging

That feels gross, doesn’t it? After all, the majority of people I’m sure love and respect their parents and would never want to make them think they are ashamed of them.

What you need to know is: It is okay to believe different things than your parents.  In my case, my parents are deeply Christian people.  Those are the values that dictate their beliefs and actions.  For my part, I’m more agnostic/atheistic in my beliefs.  I was raised a Christian, but have since began exploring different ways of viewing our origins and the world around me.

And you know what? We have a great relationship.  We recognize each other’s differences, and we accept them.  Do they maybe wish I believed what they did?  Sure.  Do I sometimes wish they saw my point of view more often? Of course. But do we love each other? Very much so.

It is possible to have different beliefs than someone and treat them with kindness and respect.  So, if you are reading this and feeling like you need to develop more empathy, I believe in you.  No matter where you are starting from, I believe that you can push yourself forward.

"We're all capable of the most incredible change. We can evolve while still staying true to who we are. We can honour who we've been and choose who we want to be next. Now's your chance! How about it?" – The Thirteenth Doctor Click To Tweet

The Four Agreements

One book that has been massively influential in my mindset changes in adulthood is The Four Agreements By Don Miguel Ruiz.  I read it maybe 10 years ago and my life has never been the same.

Basically, the book offers 4 principles to live by to help you better understand those around you and relate to them better.  

the four agreements, what empathy means

Click the image above to order a copy today.

Be impeccable with your word

  • Speak with integrity
  • Say what you mean
  • Do not engage in negative self talk or talk about others
  • Speak with truth and love

Don’t take anything personally

  • The things people do have nothing to do with you
  • The things people say have nothing to do with you
  • The less you worry about what other people say and do, the happier you will be

Don’t make assumptions

  • Ask questions and be curious
  • Communicate clearly and honestly

Always do your best

  • Your best is ever-changing and adaptable
  • As long as you do your best, no need to feel shame or guilt

This book is a must read, and offers some significant insights into the issues the world is currently facing.

3 tips for shielding yourself from toxic energy

If you are like me, and find yourself easily troubled by negative headlines and social media posts, you are likely a naturally empathetic person.  If so, it’s important to protect yourself from toxic energy so that you don’t take on more than you need to.

Here are some ways that I put up boundaries against energy that isn’t helpful to my mental health.  

Tip #1: Unplug from the news and social media regularly.

It’s really great to stay informed about the things going on in the world.  After all, they affect all of us, whether we are directly involved or not.  But the overconsumption of news and social media posts can be burdensome for your soul and can have negative effects on your mental health.

I make it a habit that after 7pm, I do not go on my phone.  Every so often, I make an exception if someone messages me.  But I do not allow myself to scroll Facebook or Twitter so close to bed time.  It helps me clear my mind to get a better night’s sleep.  It also helps you carry less negative energy into the following day.

Tip #2: Unfollow/unfriend/block.

This.  This little life hack has been a huge game changer in the amount of peace in my heart.  

Listen, I love the people in my life.  Truly truly love them.  But if there are people on your friends list whose posts make you lose sleep and feel unnecessary anxiety, there is nothing wrong with hiding their posts.  At least until things die down.

If unfollowing them isn’t enough, and they are messaging you, you can unfriend them.

If they continue to make you feel harassed, you can block them.  

That doesn’t always mean you don’t love them.  But your mental health is important, and protecting your energy is a huge factor in that.

Tip #3: Practice shielding meditations.

Here is a 5 minute guided meditation you can try when you feel as if your energy is under attack.

Kindness has never been more important

Empathy matters.  It matters more than maybe any other thing in existence.  Make it a priority to regularly evaluate your belief system, and how your resulting thoughts and actions affect others.

When you watch news stories featuring people whose journey you don’t understand, take a moment to stop yourself from making assumptions.  Choose to be kind instead.  Choose to dive into the fleshy matter of their heart and feel what they might be living through.

Empathy is feeling the heart of another, as Alfred Adler said, and recognizing that they are humans too.

The selected Optin Cat form doesn’t exist.

Related posts for why empathy is important:

Important facts about anxiety you NEED to know

3 self care tips that will get you through lockdown

6 important mental health facts and why they matter

5 life changing books to read in 2020