Is it empathy or something else?

Empathy – the ability to sense and share the feelings of others – to feel what they might feel.

I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy lately, for a number of personal reasons. It also is a subject that comes up time and time again in our Attachment training as it’s a common sign of Attachment difficulties when you have a child with a lack of empathy. It’s also of course an autistic trait which makes it more confusing!

So where does the emotional skill of empathy actually come from?

There seems to be some debate about whether it’s innate or a learned skill. What seems to be agreed is that early childhood experiences have an impact, along with neurological development which can again be linked to early nurturing.

Scientists say that the same parts of the brain where we feel our own pain – whether physical or emotional is activated when we observe pain in others. We also know that the mirror neurons are important in helping build empathy. This is when you see babies mirroring their parents whether looking where we look, pointing where we point. It’s a dance that is often led by the adult, but also sometimes by the child too. It’s attunement at it’s best I guess.

When babies experience ‘good enough’ parenting (whatever that might mean) it allows the child to feel what others feel, to be able to sense pain in others and to respond as they’ve been responded too. It also connects the synapses in the brain that are to do with empathy.

Something happens as children grow up that cause them, as adults, to lose touch with that instinct of feeling what others feel.  Perhaps their parents did not demonstrate empathy, or discouraged discussion around emotional feelings in the family, or these individuals had a distant parent as a role model, or suffered from parental neglect, or received messages such as “big boys / girls don’t cry,” which caused the empathy instinct to go a bit dormant.

In fact, one study demonstrated that children are more likely to develop a strong sense of empathy when their own emotional needs are met at home (Barnett, 1987).

Taken from blog by Laura Belsten

The questions I’ve been asking recently, and you may have asked these yourself, are:-

  1. Can you develop empathy after childhood if it’s been impaired?
  2. Can other skills mimic empathy such as compassion and sympathy? In other words, can you learn to care for people without feeling empathy?
  3. Does it matter if someone can’t be truly empathetic with others? There are thousands of adults out there who don’t feel or show empathy but they build lives and connect with people.
  4. So, final question I guess, how important is it to develop empathy in children, young people and ultimately adults?

Wow, I didn’t realise I had so many questions around this subject until I wrote them down….I’m sure there are more in there – maybe a subject for a new book?!

Anyway, back to the point of trying to address some of these questions. So can you develop empathy once it’s impaired?

I think if it comes from receiving empathy then it stands to reason that the more empathy you show a child the more chance they have of developing it themselves. Brene Brown speaks often on empathy and I heard her say on one of her TED talks that empathy is the antidote for shame. When a child feels so much shame as a result of their early poor nurturing environment the behaviour they display can be challenging. If we don’t react in an empathetic way it won’t help decrease the shame the child feels.

I found this great article whilst researching for this blog and I’m picking out two points below on how you can show more empathy with people that will in turn help them to be more empathetic:-

  • Begin with truly listening – don’t respond by talking about yourself. Give the other person the time and space to talk.
  • Don’t gloss over feelings – ‘you’ll be fine’ doesn’t help. Validate their feelings – ‘that must have been awful’.

I am of course very aware as I’m writing this that I’m living in the world of early developmental trauma and thinking about children who find it hard to show empathy. There is also a small percentage of people whose brains are not wired for empathy.

For example, psychologists have identified certain characteristics of sociopaths (those with “antisocial personality disorder” – or ASPD) as having a “pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood” (American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 2000).

Sociopaths can appear charming, but they can be manipulative and cunning.  They may be hostile under the surface, domineering, and see others as instruments to be used.  They lack remorse, shame, guilt and empathy.  In fact, they tend to have contempt for others’ feelings of distress and will readily take advantage of them.  Approximately four percent of the population can be characterized as having sociopathic tendencies.  To date, there is no known treatment for ASPD.

Taken from article by Laura Belsten.

This is not what I’m referring to here. I’m thinking of those children and young people in our schools who don’t seem to understand how others might feel when they hit them, swear at them or call them names. They don’t seem to feel remorse or be able to say sorry properly.

I believe this is actually a very complex area and one I will continue to research and try to find answers to my questions.

I do believe though that you can develop empathy, you can help a child who hasn’t experienced that nurture and attunement with adults in their early years to rely on others, trust them and in turn show that they care about them. Whether that is true empathy I’m not sure. I know from my experience with my teenagers and others around me that they are very caring, can show compassion and love to nurture younger children.

Brene Brown in her famous video shows the difference between empathy and sympathy. Take a look as this really helps when working with vulnerable children, or even with each other as adults, as we’d all love someone to come down into the trenches with us inside of offering platitudes from a far away place. It’s certainly a good place to start – get out of our own judgement and meet the person where they are at.

Nicola Marshall
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Nicola Marshall

With over 13 years working in personal development Nicola Marshall has attained numerous skills and a genuine care for others. She is a fully trained coach, adoptive parent as well as the founder of Brave Heart Education.
Nicola Marshall
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