Imagine you are out, walking around on a fine day, and come across a hole in the ground. The sudden appearance of a hole catches you off guard, but you’re able to maneuver around it deftly.
However, as you’re safely passing, you hear the struggles of someone in the hole. Peeking your head in, you see a person trying to pull themselves out, but with no luck. What do you do?
Apathy – You pretend you didn’t see them and safely back away from the hole. You don’t want to fall in that whole accidentally by doing anything. You think it’s best to keep on walking. It’s a fine day, after all.
Sympathy – Overcome with a feeling for the poor soul trapped in the hole you can think of nothing else but joining them in their struggles, so you jump in the hole with them.
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Empathy – You call down to them and let them know you’re going to help. You find a rope, make it as secure as possible, and throw it down to rescue the person trapped in the hole.
The decision seems like an obvious one; yet in other life situations, we don’t choose the path of empathy. It can become difficult for us to understand the point of view of others. We’re often too wrapped up in our own lives and seek to project our own experiences on other people’s situations. Either we’ve been in that hole before, and the commiseration begins, or you’ve never experienced that and you don’t understand why this is so hard for someone else.
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Empathy is so difficult because it’s about identifying and understanding a person’s feelings without having experienced those feelings at that moment. It’s about understanding someone’s perspective and standing inside their shoes. Developing empathy is about learning compassion and acting in a way that is supportive but not enabling.
Luckily, empathy is something you can develop with consistent work and reflection. Exercise it daily in all situations, even the mundane, and you will grow this skill.