The ability to relate and empathize with other people is essential to social and emotional wellness. Healthy individuals can build strong social support by connecting deeply with people they care about. In fact, empathy is a critical part of this process.
Empathy and Why We Need It
Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and experience what they feel. However, it differs from compassion in that instead of feeling sympathy or concern for the other person, we enter into the emotions the other person is experiencing. (1)
Compassion and empathy are necessary skills, but empathy plays a unique role in sharing others’ feelings. Also, empathy is critical in solid relationships. For example, to experience joy when a loved one is happy and to share grief with a friend who is sad are foundational aspects of close connections.
Where Does Empathy Come From?
Our brains have a certain amount of hardwiring that encourages empathy development. For example, in a room full of infants, if one baby cries, often others will as well. This is an early sign of our tendency to reflect others’ feelings. (2) As children get older, their play interactions with peers evolve, and they begin to show concern for the feelings of others, apologize when they hurt someone, and experience the joy of shared fun.
Parenting practices and personality also influence how empathetic a person becomes. (2) However, empathetic ability is not fixed, and with intention, it is possible to increase the ability to enter into the experience of those different from us. Engaging in practices that increase our curiosity and ability to relate to other people can increase empathy levels.
Becoming More Empathetic