On a soccer field, a six year old boy winds up for a kick but only catches air, completely missing the ball and falls flat on his face. Some of the players laugh; some look the other way. It was pure humiliation. But one teammate rushes over to dust him off and help him get back on his feet. One word came to mind as I watched this scene unfold in front of me: empathy.
Are we born with an innate capacity for empathy or are we taught to respond with care and concern? If it’s inherent in us all from birth, why did only one teammate reach out to assist the boy? They weren’t best friends. Was it perhaps because the teammate once whiffed on the ball too so he could relate to the embarrassment and felt this boy’s pain? Studies show the answer is likely a combination of both.
Empathy may just be the most beautiful quality in human nature because it comes from the heart, not the head. So it is important to mindfully cultivate this admirable trait. Experts from many disciplines have deemed empathy to be vitally important for personal relationships and career success. People who are empathetic tend to have better social interactions, academic performance and accomplishments at work than others.
Reflect on a crisis or major problem you experienced on this journey called life: losing your job, an emotional breakup, a health risk, etc. You may have been helped tremendously by your loved ones, but also by a friend or colleague who was not in your immediate social circle. This person(s) helped the healing process because they had been through a similar ordeal. They understood. They had walked in your shoes and could uniquely relate to your pain. Commiseration is powerful: none of us wants to feel alone in our suffering. Empathy is supportive and a loving reminder that we are all connected in this universe.
I suspect we all have been selectively empathetic in varying degrees of this quality based on whatever the scenario. I imagine there are statistics which show a direct correlation between increased empathy and the ability to relate to one’s affliction. Cancer survivors may naturally show more empathy towards someone just entering chemotherapy because they had endured that dramatic process themselves. The challenge we should all strive for is to evolve and grow to show unconditional respect from the heart by being empathetic to all.
But there needs to be a balance. The downside to empathy is that sensitive people tend to become overwhelmed and exhausted by taking on other people’s negative emotions and stress. They become an emotional sponge. To attain emotional freedom and safeguard one’s own sense of self, it’s important to nurture empathy but also learn strategies to protect yourself and not absorb the stress of the world. It’s not scaleable for even the best of us to get sucked into supporting everyone’s problems. After all, you cannot help someone else without first helping yourself.
Developing empathy can be a lifelong process. We cannot expect six year olds in a soccer match to master this skill, nor can we expect our family, friends and colleagues to feel empathy for everything we endure. What we can strive for is an open and ongoing dialogue by channeling our own efforts to engage in practicing empathy in our daily lives.