August 17, 2022
Has anyone ever told you “put yourself in someone else’s shoes?”
If so, somebody was trying to convince you to relate to someone else by considering their point of view instead of your own.
This act of perspective-taking is known as empathy.
Not to be confused with sympathy, empathy is the ability to understand and share another person’s feelings.
Scientists believe that people’s ability to empathize depends on the action of “mirror neurons” in the brain, which produce an internal experience of other people’s actions or emotions based on our own recognition of them.
For example, if you have a friend going through a difficult time, such as losing a loved one or maybe a job loss, being empathetic means you can envision yourself going through the same experience.
Having the ability to take people’s perspectives and understand them helps others feel supported and understood. In return, you may also feel more connected to them.
Did you know that 98% of human beings are able to empathize with others?
It may be surprising since most people appear self-centered, which might be true depending on the culture you grew up in. Regardless, many people can empathize. The real problem is that most people don’t practice or develop it.
There is a broad spectrum when it comes to displaying empathy. Different people can be more or less empathetic (high empathy vs. low empathy) and express empathy in some areas while not in others.
You might have experienced it yourself when someone cuts you off on the highway or the coworker who always forgets their lunch and decides to eat yours.
You may think, “How selfish and inconsiderate!” It’s quite understandable to feel this way, especially with people who only think about themselves at the expense of everyone else.
But if you’ve ever felt that we live in a self-centered society, you may be onto something, because studies have shown that American adults today care less about others and more about themselves.
A study by the Interdisciplinary Program on Empathy and Altruism Research at Indiana University discovered a 48% decrease in empathy in young adults from 1979 to 2009.
You may be wondering, “what happened?”
Researchers speculate that people have developed a stronger interest in themselves today compared to previous generations. Thus creating an empathy gap, where people are starting to lose their ability to recognize, understand, and share another’s thoughts and feelings.
Experts are saying that we are living in the “Me Me Me” Generation, in which self-interest and the desire to achieve success takes precedence over the interests of others and the community.
Depending on your answer, you might display some level of narcissism.
Adolescents in a study conducted in 1962 were asked the same question, and the results showed that only 12% said they considered themselves important. Thirty years later, this percentage rose to 80%.
People are using the term “narcissistic” more now than ever to describe someone who displays behaviors of self-centeredness and arrogance.
But not everyone is a narcissist. According to the Cleveland Clinic, only 5% of the population has a narcissistic personality disorder. Instead, most people often use this term to refer to a personality trait of someone whose empathy leans towards the lower end of the empathy spectrum.
As you can see, only a tiny population has a narcissistic personality disorder.
But doesn’t it make you wonder why it feels like everyone else is a narcissist?
Some suggest that narcissism has to do with the culture someone grew up in, and several studies have indicated that empathy tends to decrease in individualistic cultures compared to collective cultures.
A decline in empathy is becoming a major concern as it influences how we socialize and relate to others. Without empathy, we lose this ability that can negatively impact our relationships with others, leaving us feeling alone and lonely (insert “Understanding The Epidemic of Loneliness”)
“The biggest deficit that we have in our society and the world right now is an empathy deficit. We are in great need of people being able to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes.” — Barack Obama.
Empathy is a social skill essential to connect by taking on the perspective of others.
However, over the years, our ability to empathize has been stunted by an inflated ego, a fear of mental and emotional risks, and our desire to achieve success at all costs.
We’re not as empathetic as we used to be, but we can change that.
After all, 98% of people can empathize, and it’s up to us to develop it.