Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Defining The Potential Of Empathy

What is empathy? Where does it end? What is its potential? And what would motivate someone to feel and utilize it in the world today, when most people are more concerned about money, status, and power or just surviving till tomorrow?

Let's go on a journey into the depths of Empathy. It might seem like a long boring journey, but to reach the end, you must go through several layers to truly grasp and understand what we are talking about.....this gift called empathy. So bear with it.

Defining Empathy

This is the portion of this discussion where it gets very technical. You might get bored. You might stop reading. But it will get better once we are done with this explanation.

One site defines Empathy as: The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this.

Another site defines Empathy as: A sense of shared experience, including emotional and physical feelings, with someone or something other than oneself.

Because of these definitions, the gift of empathy spans several different areas of human intelligence: that of cognitive intelligence and emotional intelligence. And thus can be broken down into two different sections: cognitive and emotional empathy, which are defined as:

Emotional Empathy occurs when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious. This kind of Empathy makes someone well-attuned to another person’s inner emotional world.

Cognitive Empathy is having a consciousness of the need to imaginatively put oneself in the place of others in order to genuinely understand them, which requires the consciousness of our egocentric tendency to identify truth with our immediate perceptions of long-standing thought or belief.

This can further be broken down into 6 different parts, which span both of the two types listed above:

Theory Of Mind is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one's own. In a 2001 research paper, Simon Baron-Cohen describes Theory of Mind as "...being able to infer the full range of mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination, emotions, etc.) that cause action. In brief, having a theory of mind is to be able to reflect on the contents of one's own and other's minds."

Perspective Taking is the ability to see things from a point of view other than one’s own. In this description, there are a number of different traits. The first is a person recognizing that the self and others can have different thoughts and feelings. The second is a person understanding that different perspectives may occur because individual people are privy to different information. The third is when a person can see through another person's eyes and view their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors from the other person's perspective. They also recognize that others can do the same. The fourth is when a person can step away from a one on one situation and imagine how both parties are viewed from a third party perspective. And the last occurs when a person understands that third-party perspective taking can be manipulated by a system of cultural and/or social values.

Cognitive Empathy is having a consciousness of the need to imaginatively put oneself in the place of others in order to genuinely understand them, which requires the consciousness of our egocentric tendency to identify truth with our immediate perceptions of long-standing thought or belief. This trait correlates with the ability to reconstruct accurately the viewpoints and reasoning of others and to reason from premises, assumptions, and ideas other than our own. This trait also correlates with the willingness to remember occasions when we were wrong in the past despite an intense conviction that we were right, and with the ability to imagine our being similarly deceived in a case-at-hand.

Emotional Identification is defined as a heightened form of emotional contagion in which the another person's emotions are taken as one's own. Empathic identification is defined as the process to predict people's behavior by using faculty of empathy.

True Empathy is basically another name for Emotional Empathy, in that it occurs when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious. This kind of Empathy makes someone well-attuned to another person’s inner emotional world.

Emotional Contagion is the tendency to catch and feel emotions that are similar to and influenced by those of others. It is a process in which a person or group influences the emotions or behavior of another person or group through the conscious or unconscious induction of emotion states and behavioral attitudes.

Beneath The Surface Of Empathy

Now, I can presuppose what some of you think of Empathy. Its a psychic gift. Its something everyone is capable of (except in cases of sociopathy, narcissism, or perhaps autism). Its ingrained in us because of something called Mirror Neuron (which is defined as: a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another animal (especially by another animal of the same species). Thus, the neuron "mirrors" the behavior of another animal, as though the observer were itself acting. And is based on some recent studies.)

And is it based in all of these things? Is it psychic? Is it something everyone can do? Is it something based in hard science, like Mirror Neurons? Yes, to all of the above. This is because it can be viewed and understood from many different angles. And none of those angles is particularly wrong. But it's not a complete overview of what this gift is either. It's simply bits and pieces of something much larger than that.

On the surface and by its definition, empathy seems to be about shared emotions and experiences. It's someone understanding another person's feelings and situations, which is the opposite of apathy and indifference. But beneath the surface, where one describes it as psychic phenomena or explains it with science, traits, and definitions, there is more to it.

Empathy is a form of instinctive communication which is derived from emotion. This can be observed even in animals when a mother protects its young or (where there is a pack mentality or a social structure) one animal helps another. It is based in knowing, through intuitively feeling those that surround you (with or without verbal communication) what they need, how they feel, and how to help, if it is possible ~ even if its just a shoulder to lean on or a hand to hold.

Empathy is a social ability where in, no verbal communication is needed. This is because the whole of the person, even without words, speaks through body language, microexpressions of the face, and the energy which surrounds the person (being around a depressed person might feel like you are being weighted down because the air feels so heavy and anger might be felt as if you are being punched in the gut, even if they aren't angry with you in particular).

All of these things blend together to give an image of what is going on inside the other person. When you add words to this, the experiences is broadened into new depths. So when the two are joined together, emotion (instinct) and cognition (imagination), you wind up with a truly empathic experience of sharing both emotions and experience.

But Empathy is also more than just an instinct or how you emotionally relate and react to people, based on shared experience, body language, and what not. So lets take it deeper.

The Potential Of Empathy

The potential of Empathy expands far beyond the seemingly limitless scope of the emotional arena, because it is quite literally, a shift in personal perspective which allows a broadening of one's limited perception (point of view) in order to accommodate the perceptions of others and understand them. This practice, while quite obvious within interaction one has with others in the emotional realm, is also available in day to day life, in a much more subtle form that expands beyond the walls of the emotional. So lets look at it a little bit closer, to help you understand what I'm talking about.

Emotional Empathy

You see a woman sitting on a bus as you get on, staring blankly out the window. She clutches her bag to her chest, with her arms crossed over them....as though she is clinging to it for dear life. She does not seem to realize she is grasping the purse so tightly that her hands are in fists. Her shoulders are slumped and she gives an overall feeling of being depressed, dejected, and lost in her own pain.

You go to take your seat, across the aisle from her and you can not help but reach out to her in some small way. You catch her eye as you move toward the seat and you smile at her, even though there seems to be no reaction to it. And when you finally sit down, you reach over and touch her. And then you ask, "Are you alright?"

She looks at you, as thought pondering whether or not to blow you off by ignoring you or by saying "Yeah" and going back to her blank stare, and she does not speak at first. But after a moment she begins to speak, "Yeah, I guess I'm alright. Its just that.....". From which she begins to tell you a story that is the cause of her dejected mood.

And all you do in the space of that moment as she talks is listen. Then, when she is done, seemingly out of no where, just the right words to comfort her begin to pour out of your mouth. And you are as stunned as she is to see the relief and hope which kindle in her eyes. And by the time you get off the bus, you have left her with one pivotal message....."You are not alone." and she does not wear the same face she did when you got on the bus. Replacing it is one of hope.

This is but one example of Emotional Empathy. They take all kinds of shapes and forms, and can be as simple as a smile at someone or a nod of hello to allowing someone to lean on you when they are sorrowful and suffering. But more important than the method of which one uses Emotional Empathy, is the underlying message which runs through all of them. It is a message of hope and validation....of another person's emotions, experiences and even their very existence in this world. And that is a powerful thing to be sure.

In this scenario the person who is being empathetic/empathic is opening themselves to hear what the other person is going through, which in turn broadens their own perspective enough to help the other person find solace, even if what is offered up are simply words of comfort.

But Empathy doesn't end there, nor should it, because Empathy can be applied to everything in life from music....



to images...



to movies....



But even these examples play on the more obvious emotional aspects of Empathy. So lets look at things that are more abstract but still apply to the shift in perspective that is associated with Empathy.

Abstract Empathy

An optical illusion is a visual tool which allows one to shift their perspective in order to perceive different things about a single image.


Do you see a young lady or an old lady?
(Hint: The old lady's eye is the young lady's ear)


A dream is much like an optical illusion, in that it allows one to go over events, issues or problems which arise in daily life, from a new perspective (which is more complex than a simple visual shift in perspective as one does with an optical illusion). This perspective is one based in metaphor, which means that even though one sees one thing within a dream, in reality it has a whole different meaning based on what the subconscious mind associates with that particular image.

A Common Dream

"I'm Naked!"

So you are going about your normal routine - going to work, waiting for the bus, or just walking down the street - when you suddenly realize that you are stark naked. Dreaming that you are completely or partially naked is very common. Nudity symbolizes a variety of things depending on your real life situation.

Becoming mortified at the realization that you are naked in public, reflects your vulnerability or feelings of shamefulness. You may be hiding something and are afraid that others can see right through you. Metaphorically, clothes are a means of concealment. Depending on the type of clothes you wear, you can hide your identity or be someone else. But without them, everything is hanging out for all to see. You are exposed and left without any defenses. Thus your naked dream may be telling you that you are trying to be something that you really are not. Or you are fearful of being ridiculed and disgraced. Such anxieties are elevated especially in situations where you are trying to impress others. Perhaps you are in a new work environment or in a new relationship. You may be expressing fears or apprehension in revealing your true feelings in such situations.

Nudity also symbolizes being caught off guard. Finding yourself naked at work or in a classroom, suggests that you are unprepared for a project at work or school. You may be unprepared in making a well informed decision. With all eyes on you, you fear that some flaw will be brought to public attention. You fear that people will see through your true self and you will be exposed as a fraud or a phony.

Often times, when you realize that you are naked in your dream, no one else seems to notice. Everyone else in the dream is going about their business without giving a second look at your nakedness. If this happens in your dream, then it implies that your fears are unfounded; no one will notice except you. You may be magnifying the situation and making an issue of nothing.

If you dream that you are proud of your nakedness and show no embarrassment or shame, then it symbolizes your unrestricted freedom. You have nothing to hide and are proud of who you are. The dream is about a new sense of honesty, openness, and a carefree nature. Perhaps you are trying to get to the "bare facts". Alternatively, the dream may be telling you that you are drawing the wrong kind of attention to yourself. You want to get noticed, but are going about it the wrong way.


From dreams we go from the internal workings of the mind to those things that occur outside of the mind and in the outer world. This is called Synchronicity, which is defined as: the experience of two or more events that are causally unrelated occurring together in a meaningful manner. To count as synchronicity, the events should be unlikely to occur together by chance.

Examples of Synchronicity

* You are suffering with financial difficulties, yet money for basic expenses such as rent, food, and utilities, always manifests. You begin to trust this. At first you thank the universe or god, then you realize you create this abundance. You are learning to watch how you manifest and why, watching yourself from outside the box.

* You have just received your last check from unemployment when suddenly a job comes along.

* You walk into a book store not knowing what to buy, and the book you need falls from a shelf and practically hits you over the head.

* You have been feeling ill with no clear diagnosis. You meet someone who knows a doctor or healer with the answers. All physical problems stem from emotional issues. Your soul will point out the patterns and hopefully the solutions. When the person is ready to heal, the doctor will be there. That person will often show up by synchronicity. This all stems from various levels of depression and self-sabotage stemming from one's DNA or life experiences that have worn them down. When you are confused and in emotional pain, you either have trouble manifesting synchronicities or they are major learning lessons.

* There is a sudden relocation which seems to be for one reason, but later you find much more than you bargained for as the synchronicities rapid occur as if a domino effect. For example, you relocate for a new job, then, as if by synchronicity, someone 'special' comes into your life. You and that person have attracted each other for experience, as all life is nothing more than that. In another case, the energies of the area hold something transformational for you, which is perhaps the reason your soul created the move in the first place.

* You finally end a bad relationship and immediately another partner comes into your life as if by synchronicity.

* You drive to a place where parking is "next to impossible" and someone pulls out of a parking spot or it is waiting for you.
All of these things, which are abstract empathy, in that they do not have a direct connection to the emotional realm which is most often associated with Empathy, all lead one to a specific gift which Empaths (and many other people) generally have in abundance.....Intuition. This can be defined as: the act by which the mind perceives the agreement or disagreement of two ideas or understanding without apparent effort. Intuition is quite literally the language of Empathy, within the emotional/social realm, as well as, beyond that realm. And it is the truest potential of Empathy.

Now you've seen certain examples and you might be wondering how this directly applies to you. But all of this is something you probably do already without realizing it....when you reach out to someone in need and the words simply flow out of no where to comfort them, when you sit down to balance your check book, when you dream and wake up with a sense of purpose or foreboding, when you look at pieces of art, read stories/poetry, and listen to music of all kinds, and in other ways to numerous to account for. This is your life, whether you realize it or not, and whether you're an Empath or not.

Empathy is a pervasive and subtle language of the mind and heart which can be seen and felt in everything you do and say. It permeates every aspect of life and how you relate to it. It's just a matter of recognizing it, instead of wondering "how did I do that?". And its a powerful gift, that simple shifting of perspective to broaden and expand your view point, whether its in the emotional arena or elsewhere in your life. So think about it and discover more about yourself and what you are capable of than you know right now. What an amazing journey that is. ^_^

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