In this week’s spotlight I wish to discuss empathy. Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Empathy differs from compassion in that empathy refers to the ability to relate to another person’s pain vicariously, as if one has experienced that pain themselves, whereas compassion is the ability to understand and share the emotions and experiences of another person.
Emotion and Empathy
If you cry at sad scenes in films, tweet and post emotional links and jump to help the less fortunate, you could be genetically predisposed to ‘sensory processing sensitivity’, researchers say. California researchers have found that up to 20% of people are affected, having a highly sensitive brain that responds to emotional images. The researchers used fMRI scans to monitor the level of empathy – and say the emotion levels are particularly high if pictures of partners smiling are shown.” 1
To some extent we are all empathetic in that nature and evolution have equipped us with mirror neurons. A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting.
Advantages and Disadvantages
There are both advantages and disadvantages to empathy. Too much empathy may lead to co-dependence. This happens when a partner in a relationship is empathetic to the point that they are so focused on their partner’s needs and interests that they forgo their own needs and interests. That said, empathy is a desirable characteristic when it comes to understanding others and building a better society.
So what is a healthy balance between too much empathy and just the right amount? I live in a community where it’s almost impossible to go from point A to point B without encountering someone on the street who’s panhandling. When do you help or do you? I remember a pregnant woman approaching me in a parking lot with a sad story of how her money had been stolen and all she wanted was a little gas money to get back home to Idaho. I was just about to give her money when a gentleman stepped in with these words, “Don’t give her anything. She gave me that same gas story last week.”
Just this week as I was walking into one of my favorite restaurants with my lovely bride, a fellow approached me asking for money. He insisted that he was broke and needed to feed his four-year-old daughter. Forgive me, but his appearance suggested he was far from broke so I simply shook my head no and walked on. Seated by the restaurant window I watched as he stopped a woman headed into a retail store next door. The woman did give him money and he immediately entered the same restaurant I was seated in, went to the bar and ordered a drink.
Now in contrast, I have given many people money thinking they truly were in need, but again, where is the balance. Research clearly suggests everyone is better served if instead of giving the panhandler money, we donate to a relief center or home for the homeless, etc. Still, knowing this and ignoring that person right in front of you who appears to need help can be a haunting task.
I would like to hope that we all can empathize with others and go to their aid in times of need, but once again, how we act on our empathic needs may take some careful pre-thinking as we tender our concern with the appropriate mixture of balance.
My thoughts anyway—what are yours?
As always, thanks for the read.
1 Cry at films? Blame your genes: Scientists say 20% of people are affected by ‘sensory processing sensitivity’ that makes them more emotional