Recently, someone I know — a fellow screenwriter — more of an acquaintance, than a friend, told me that he believed I was an empath.
At first, this threw me. I instantly envisioned myself seated at a round table, leading a séance, even though I know that a “medium” is a very different animal, indeed.
The dictionary defines “empath” as follows: A person with the paranormal ability to apprehend the mental or emotional state of another individual.
Well, “Damn,” I thought. “Who knew?” As I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about this, I dug deep and really thought hard about my interactions with other people, as well as my connection with animals. What I came away with is, perhaps the dude is right. I do feel things deeply. When people are hurting, or sad, or frightened, I know it. The same applies to animals. When one of our cats is in a “state,” I instinctively catch that vibe.
Truly, I don’t know if the guy is right or wrong, but one thing is certain: Empathy is a powerful emotion — a link really — that connects us with others, by allowing us to understand and share the feelings of others. In this way, we’re afforded the opportunity to see things from their unique perspective.
We’ve all heard adages such as, “Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes,” or even, “Put yourself in my place.” How many times have you heard that? Or uttered it, yourself?
With the tumult our current society is under, the flames of which are fueled by a hate-spewing administration, it would seem that the quality of empathy is sorely lacking. Perhaps it is. But, on a smaller scale, empathy is a means to an end. More about that in a bit.
According to Inc.com, there are actually three iterations of empathy. There is:
n Cognitive empathy. Simply, this is understanding how a person is feeling and what he or she might be thinking. Because we can relay information in a way that best reaches them, this type of empathy makes us better communicators overall.
n Emotional empathy. (Or, “affective empathy.”) Here is where we can actually share someone else’s feelings, allowing us to forge emotional connections.
n Compassionate empathy. (Or “empathic concern.”) This goes beyond the simple understanding of others.Rather, emotional empathy moves us to take action and help, if needed.
Empathy, for those of us who have, and practice it, is the key to what separates us from people who can walk by a homeless man and not think anything of it. Indifference is the flip side of empathy.
When it comes to being empathic, or empathetic, take your choice, several key factors come into play that allow us to feel empathy for some people and not others. Most prominent among them is our own past experiences and expectations — and the way we were socialized by our parents, peers and society, at large.
Verywellmind.com offers up some thought-provoking reasons why some people lack empathy.
n Cognitive biases. Other people’s failures are attributed to internal failings, while our own shortcomings are blamed on external factors, making it difficult to see things through another’s perspective.
n Dehumanizing victims. Particularly common when people are distant from us and/or “different.” Not like us. An example is when we watch reports of a conflict or disaster in a foreign land and are unmoved by the trauma experienced by people from whom we have no connection.
n Blaming victims. Have you ever wondered if the victim of a crime provoked the attack? If they “got what they deserved?” Such thinking stems from the naïve assumption that the world is fair and just, and fools us thinking that terrible things could never happen to us.
Have more empathy. Maybe that’ s the solution to the age-old question, “Why can’t we just get along?
I want to share an experience I recently had with a group of people who obviously know the value of walking in another’s shoes.
As a breast cancer survivor, “mammogram time” carries a whopping set of baggage. Last month, I had my four-year-check. Clear. (Yeah!)
Luckily, from jump, I connected with an extraordinary team at Northwestern’s Breast Health Center, where I am treated like someone with feelings…someone who might be uncomfortable or fearful, and understandably so.
This sounds like a commercial and I don’t mean it to be. I just want to stress how the quality of empathy is…well, it’s like a super power. From the moment I enter the center, until I climb into my car and make for home, I can feel that everyone from the front desk staff, to the physicians — my oncologist kicks ass — to the tech people, all of them understand what we women have gone through, and what some of us are still going through. Maybe it sounds corny, but the whole experience is healing, really. And every year that I go, I’m a lot angst-ridden.
Regarding the mammogram itself: As I have what doctors call “dense breasts,” which, by the way, has nothing to do with size, and also, because I’ve already had breast cancer, I have to have 3D imagery, sometimes followed by an ultrasound.
For this year’s check-in, I had the ultrasound and it was performed by the same radiologist who spotted the cancer four years ago.
I was delighted to see him, as I’ll never forget how kind he was that day, way back when.
My husband was in the room during that first ultrasound, and when my guy uttered the words that would turn my world upside down, he hastened to add, “Losing weight probably saved your life.” That was due to the fact that I’d lost a lot of weight prior, from changing my diet and working out religiously. My body fat was so low that I’d actually seen the lump in my chest.
While I was trying to digest this, the radiologist could see that my husband was equally stunned. As I folded in on myself, traumatized by the diagnosis and was comforted by the radiologist’s female assistant, he excused himself, took my husband out into the hall and talked with him for several minutes, assuring him that, because it was caught so early, the malignancy he’d found was curable. He made that point, several times.
The man was displaying empathy. And it made all the difference.
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