Empathy: “The capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another's position.” (Wikipedia) Empathy comes in different forms — emotional (appropriate responses to others’ feelings), cognitive (ability to understand another’s perspective), and somatic (a physical reaction to what someone else is going through). You might have experienced all or some combination of these in various situations in life. But what if you struggle to understand what someone else is feeling, or worse, you come up empty on even caring about another’s position? This disability makes for a huge void in relationships and limits just how close two can ever be. For a mutual, meaningful relationship of connection, empathy is essential.
What does lack of empathy look like? Low emotional intelligence, chronic focus on self, lack of willingness to compromise, poor listening, indifference to another’s pain, refusal to make room for other viewpoints, unforgiving, opinionated with extreme defensiveness, highly critical of others even about simple human errors, and not taking responsibility for hurting another but instead blames the person harmed.
Empathy is both innate and learned as a social survival skill. So what causes certain people to lose it or seem to miss it altogether? How one’s brain is “wired” can certainly play a part, but for many the loss begins when attachment needs are not met by an early caregiver. The relationship between child and parent makes a huge difference in developing emotionally. A parent who is distant, self-absorbed, inconsistent, unresponsive, insensitive and avoids feelings can lead to children who shut down their emotions early on as a coping strategy. Before you know it, that child has grown into an adult lacking empathy, who lives out a pattern of pushing vulnerability away at all costs. And without vulnerability, you don’t have the closeness required to form a secure attachment to another human being.
Is there hope for those who lack empathy to learn it and thus enhance their relationships? According to psychotherapist Diane Poole Heller, PhD, “The journey of healing your attachment wounds requires a fearless investigation into the roots of your shame. It takes an unwavering faith in your ability to love and be loved, to shift your allegiance from rupture to wholeness, and to embrace the perfection of your own heart.” I think sure, it is possible, but one has to be willing to do the deliberate, inner work required. There is no shortcut to having an emotionally intimate relationship with another human being: empathy is essential.
May you be inspired!