Empathy is widely acknowledged for its power in giving us the ability to profoundly understand one another.
Significant psychological, biological and philosophical study has shown its potential in helping us to build a better society.
But empathy has its critics, and, when considered in isolation, might not be quite as universal a solution as we believe.
Where empathy’s true power lies is in its ability to bring out our compassion – the willing and motivated desire to actively reduce suffering in others.
In this post, I’ll explain how to develop compassion by using critical empathy skills which overcome the boundaries of this potential trait.
Developing compassion allows us to make transformative change, making the world a better and fairer place.
What is Empathy, and Why do we Need it?
This word comes to the English language through multiple translations, from the greek “empatheia” (passion, state of emotion) through the German philosophy of “Einfühlung” (in feeling).
Today, it is defined as the ability to share the feelings or experiences of another by perceiving what it would be like to be in their situation.
Empathy allows us to overcome our tendency to revolve around our own emotions and experiences.
By seeing the world through another’s eyes, and feeling through their senses, we are able to understand suffering. With such understanding, those with strong empathy are predictably more concerned with reducing this suffering.
Empathy enables our social connections, as we are better able to respond to social cures when we can appreciate what our peers are thinking and feeling.
Not only does this help us to get on better with one another in our day-to-day social lives; it also helps us in business, leadership, healthcare and more.
For example, salespeople that can anticipate and accommodate the needs of potential customers through perceiving their various struggles and satisfactions are more able to gain trust, loyalty and – ultimately – profit. On the less corporate side, this understanding also helps businesses to provide best for their customers’ needs.
Similarly, leaders who are able to empathise with their inferiors are able to boost productivity and innovation by creating an organisational culture within which employees feel comfortable, appreciated and engaged.
Empathy activates a personal response within us. Evolution, unfortunate as it may be in an increasingly connected world, relies on self-interest and our biological drive to survive and pass on our genes.
But our evolution has also brought incredible emotional intelligence. With this intelligence, empathy allows us to consider rationally the experiences of those around us and how we would feel and react under the same circumstances.
Studies have shown that this empathy can assist us in overcoming broad socially structured norms. For example, one study found that racial bias can to some extent be overcome by imagining how we would feel ourselves in situations of discrimination.
We need empathy because it allows us to connect as human beings. Each individual experiences hardship for different reasons and with different response.
Without being able to understand one another, we cannot hope to understand the bigger issues which affect our societies. When problems cannot be understood, they cannot be addressed.
The Downfalls of Empathy?
While empathy is an incredibly beneficial trait, it has valid downfalls pointed to by critics who argue that empathy alone does not necessarily bring social good.
As a society, our connectedness has increased by unprecedented amounts as new infrastructure and technology have developed.
As global populations have grown and interacted, realisation of our similarities has time and time again been confined by the simultaneous realisation of our differences. We’ve developed language, labels, laws and boundaries which make these differences all the more meaningful.
This has had consequences on our ability to empathise.
Studies have found that we are able to build such strong communities of solidarity with those like ourselves only at the expense of those less like us. In other words, our ability to relate to our peers comes at the cost of our ability to relate to those we perceive as different.
Despite our shared needs for food, water, shelter, security etc., we see the rise of migration controls, ongoing racism, displacement and deportation.
This is not necessarily evidence of a decline in our individual empathy. Rather, psychological research has shown that in times of pressure (such as environmental collapse, resource scarcity, global pandemic…), we focus our empathy on the groups we identify with.
This ’empathy bias’ decreases our understanding of those outside our circles.
The way we interact with our external world and communities can reinforce this bias in empathy. Most of us are guilty of consuming only knowledge that confirms our existing perceptions.
Through a combination of personal validation and the filtering by various news and social media outputs, we find ourselves absorbing information that confirms and strengthens the beliefs we hold.
In doing so, we make it more difficult to understand the alternative realities experienced by others. While there are, of course, certain laws of nature which fame human life in facts, the vast majority of our assumptions in life are subjective.
What is true to one person, based on their knowledge, beliefs and experience, is often entirely different from what is true to another – particularly when their background is entirely dissimilar from our own.
The more we confirm our own world truths, the harder it becomes to place ourselves in the position of people whose truth is different. In other words, the harder it is to truly empathise and gain the full value of empathy.
When we rely too much on empathy, we might also fail to address broad or underlying issues.
Empathy is a strong, personal connection between people. But empathetic bonding between individuals can be hard to transfer to wider environments.
I can recall a personal example of this. Last year, I supported an eating disorder charity through a Facebook birthday fundraiser. I posted my personal story and appealed to my network for donations. My post received many lovely, supportive comments and I tripled my initial fundraising target.
This year however, I ran a birthday fundraiser in support of 350.org – a charity which works to promote climate justice. I crafted a post describing the urgency of climate change and social justice, but I did not draw from any personal stories or emotions.
Despite sharing and rewriting the post time and time again, it gained little engagement and I was only able to raise half of my target amount.
While I still believe that the eating disorder charity does incredible and necessary work, the benefits of 350.org’s efforts are arguably more global and more urgent.
So why was my network less willing to donate to this cause? Because when our selflessness depends on empathy, it is far more powerful when evoked by personal emotional connection to another.
Empathy has a further downfall in its ability to overwhelm those of us who are particularly sensitive. Highly empathetic people can often become burdened and exhausted by the extreme suffering in the world, all of which they feel and experience as if it were their own.
This can result in an inability to function sufficiently, a tendency to justify behaviours that are inherently wrong, struggle to avoid toxic relationships or stand up for oneself.
Furthermore, with an overwhelming urge to protect, extreme empaths can become overbearing or controlling, and reduce the ability of others to develop their own ways of coping and escaping their struggles.
Living in a state of hyper-empathy can be, contrary to what might be expected, extremely isolating. The empath is often so accustomed to adopting the feelings of others that they take little time to experience and express their own emotions.
While extreme empathy might seem admirable, it often fails to be of practical use.
Consider the example of therapy. While therapists need some level of empathy to validate and understand their patients, it would be of little use if they experienced the same intense emotions.
If you visited your therapist in floods of tears, or, in an extreme example – experiencing suicidal thoughts – it would hardly be beneficial for them to cry alongside you or hold your hand as together you threw yourselves into the abyss.
Compassion as an Alternative to Empathy
I apologise if I’ve just destroyed your conception of empathy. To make up for it, please allow me to suggest an alternative.
Though the word compassion is often used interchangeably with empathy, there are subtle differences.
While empathy can be viewed as a passive response to the feelings of others, compassion is defined as its more active counterpart.
Researchers have identified 5 core components of compassion:
- Acknowledging the pain of others
- Being aware that everyone experiences suffering
- Experiencing emotions based on the suffering of others
- Overcoming or managing these emotions
- Being motivated to actionably address and reduce suffering
Compassion expands beyond the individual in two ways.
Firstly, it inspires external action rather than internalisation.
Secondly, with its acknowledgement that suffering is universal, the solutions it generates are more likely to address wider problems and underlying issues, rather than seeking simply to make a single individual feel better in a single moment.
This indicates why compassion might be more productive than empathy in bringing about true social change and alleviating suffering on a broader level and for a longer period of time.
How to Develop Compassion by Using Critical Empathy
In its feature of experiencing emotions based on suffering, it could be argued that compassion actively depends on having some initial empathy.
Compassion is, by this definition, essentially the actionable extension of the ability to understand the feelings of others.
So how can we develop compassion without succumbing to the downfalls of the empathy it depends on?
Its here that I introduce the concept of Critical Empathy.
To overcome empathy bias, we must be critical in appreciating that our world truth is not universal. To do this requires self-awareness and open mindedness.
You can practice these skills in a number of ways. When out and about, try to be more observant of the people around you.
Consider their expressions, their movements, their actions – and try to imagine something beyond it. Ask yourself what their background is, how their day has been so far, what they’re planning on doing that evening.
Of course, there’s no way to know these things about strangers without some awkward questioning – but using your imagination will open your mind to lived experiences which differ from your own.
Try consuming knowledge which varies from your personal world view. Even if you strongly disagree – ask yourself what reasons someone might have to hold this perspective.
Consider people in your life whom you believe to be extremely different from yourself. Try to look beyond your differences and search instead for similarities. There are likely to be more than you expect.
If possible spend some time with these people, have deeper conversations and see what commonalities arise.
When you learn of news in your community, your city or your country – try making a mind map of different groups or individuals (even if you make them up!) and how they might be affected by this news.
Explore those feelings, however uncomfortable they might be, and consider their diversity.
What actions would you choose to alleviate any suffering you find?
Would your actions be the same for each group/individual? If so, you might still be imagining that everyone feels and experiences as you do.
The next time you find yourself experiencing high levels of empathy for an individual, try taking step outside your personal connection with them.
Ask yourself not how to relieve their grief, but what underlying issues are causing it. Go further, and consider how this persons suffering may be shared with or impacting others in their life.
When you pass a homeless person in the street and your empathy drives you to spare them some change, do you spend much time thinking about the vast number of other people suffering through homelessness?
Do you think about social structures, drug addiction, domestic abuse?
In this case – practicing more critical empathy can help us to go beyond a short-term fix and think about the underlying issues that must be addressed.
When you ache for your friend who’s experiencing a messy break up – do you consider how their partner is impacted? Do you wonder whether, in their stress, they’ve been more distracted at work or aggressive in their relationships?
Again, this critical querying of your empathy can develop your compassion by forming a fuller picture of what is at stake and how it may best be approached,
Next, and perhaps contradicting your previous ideas of managing empathy, we must focus on ourselves.
To be critical, you need to remain open minded. When you allow empathy to overwhelm you, its easy to get swept away by a wave of other people’s emotions and lose the deeper perspective that would allow you to develop meaningful action.
While it is important and productive to acknowledge and seek to understand the emotions of others – this should not come at the cost of your own self awareness.
Check in with your own feelings, as often as you can. Try keeping a journal, or use an app (I recommend Moodkit) if you find it difficult to remember.
Save a note on your phone with a few key questions to ask yourself every day. “How am I feeling?” “What am I struggling with?”
If you can, share your emotions. Talking to others about your feelings can help you maintain a sense of self separate from the mindset of others which you adopt through your empathy.
Sharing and seeking advice also helps others to practice their own empathy, as they too will learn how those different from them are experiencing the world around them.
This outside perspective might also help in warning you of where your empathy has caused you to justify wrongful behaviour, or in identifying any toxic relationships you’re involved in.
Checking in with yourself and remaining self-aware allows you to step outside of the pain and exhaustion of empathy. Engaging in self-care will allow you to be at your best when it comes to helping others.
By providing for your own emotional and physical wellbeing, you’ll have the strength and motivation to turn your natural empathy into solid action.
Your perspective will be more rational, and you’ll be able to consider active solutions which are more helpful to those around you. Its a win-win situation really; you help yourself, which allows you to better serve others, which in turn relieves your urge to protect.
In being critical, we aim for balance. When considering empathy, we often focus on understanding and experiencing the suffering of others.
Taking a more balanced approach, why not try to understand and experience the positives? Consider the excitements, interests and gratitude of those around you.
Empathy-building advice will often tell you to practice active listening. For some reason, this is always focused on figuring out people’s deepest despair. Why not use these same techniques to discover where people truly find joy. What values do they hold? What beauty do they see?
We don’t always need to ask whats wrong. Sometimes, we can learn more by asking whats right.
Doing this can relieve the constant heartache of trying to understand people’s struggles, while also giving some useful pointers as to what we can actively do to encourage wellbeing.
By acknowledging what makes people feel happy, secure and optimistic – we learn what to aim for for those that aren’t in that place.
Social change requires more than just the starting point of understanding suffering. It needs goals, it needs hope and it needs action.
Compassion, developed through a more critical practice of empathy, can provide these things.
With compassion, we can change the world and build a better and fairer future for us all.