I have been interested in the science of empathy for some time now. I believe that empathy is central to stability and the human experience.
Would it surprise you to know there are different kinds of empathy?* One, emotional (or affective) empathy, is self-focused; absorbing the feelings of others and reacting to the overwhelm in order to find relief for the self. I have this trait. I have a child who shares this empathy trait with me. It is exhausting. It is nature; babies are born with it. It is nature, and sort of like a gift, but with a missing piece: maturity.
Take heart, there's another component, and when this one is added to the first, it begins to grow into something more holistic; something we can live with. The second aspect, cognitive empathy, is an outward-focused, active approach. It is not only feeling someone else's feelings, but putting yourself in their shoes in a way that enables you to act with compassion toward them. Instead of just catching emotions like you might catch a virus, you are now embracing a new perspective. You are putting effort into the relationship. You are seeking to understand the feelings of others and act in a generous-hearted, helpful way. This is the kind of empathy the world needs.**
As I practice staying present to myself, I have realized a part of that is being present to my whole self, even the parts I would rather hide from. I can claim emotional awareness, but I don’t particularly want to admit to emotional immaturity. It is hard to say “I need to grow” in this area. (Especially where I react harshly to my children in a “breaking the vase” type of incident.) I do want to grow, however. I want to grow. I want to be the change that brings about a more compassionate culture.
I want to change the culture of indifference and self-focus, and it has to start with my own inner work, moving into action from there. I want to live the heart of empathy in all that I do. I intend to explore more this week about how to move in the direction of empathy. For a start, I know it’s really quite as simple as: “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them…”*** (Sometimes I get preach-ish.)
Read the rest of the 31 Days of Stability series here.
*Go here for some empathy whats, whys, and hows.
**Some argue that there is a third aspect called compassionate empathy, because it is possible to practice cognitive empathy as a means to a cruel end. For further research, go here.
***Matthew 7:12 (ESV)