I have had to do a lot of thinking and research about empathy recently.
The ability to sense the other person’s real emotions is distinct from what is commonly referred to as empathy. There are those who sense base emotion under the personality or social facade adopted by people. Without getting too metaphysical about it, it is similar to sensing someone’s aura. However, I feel the next step, that of imagining yourself in a similar situation, feeling the effect of the same emotion, the full weight of your reaction to that emotion is separate from the first ability. The third aspect is then the corresponding compassion for the other person. These three things can exist in various combinations and levels.
For example, if a child meets another who has been recently been bullied and is consequently quiet and withdrawn. For someone with no perception, the child might just seem shy or retiring. A true empath would be able to sense the underlying fear (not by esp etc but by various minute physical cues which might be ignored consciously). The empath would know that it is not just shyness, there is fear. However the empath experience might end there. The next step of caring enough to find out WHY that emotion exists, taking the story and imagining themselves in that story, imagining the bullying and consequences on oneself, and then subsequently transferring the regret to the other is a distinct process. Of course the third then is actually knowing how to express your response and understanding to the other person is also an ability.
People can be warm and caring completely superficially with no real insight into the other’s feelings. Social learned behaviors and responses along with enthusiasm goes a long way towards being called empathetic.
People can have great insight and discern the deeper emotions without any desire to imagine themselves in that situation or do anything about it. They tend to be observers and recorders like reporters , their role limited to recognizing.
People can do the first two without the third.Often in response to prior experiences, you teach your child to not respond eves though his natural impulses might be different. And of course there are those who just don’t communicate well. Or who are unable to deal with the consequences of getting involved.
And if course there are those who can sense emotion and respond to it without ever imagining they themselves could ever be in that situation. Often the seemingly kind response is lacking any true understanding of the consequence of the emotions. Ie the child was bullied and is now scared to go for recess. The response of another child who can only sense the fear might be to try to downplay the importance of the bully or tell the scared child that being scared is cowardice. Maybe even tell stories about standing up to a bully. Perhaps the true issue at this point is that the scared child is now feeling isolated and yes, a little ashamed of being weak enough to be bullied. Maybe the child would appreciate a friend who would make it a point to sit with him and just talk about other things, just be a friend.
The most chilling is of course those who have no sense at all about how the other person may feel. This kind often transfers other people’s stories on to themselves and feel severely victimized. This would be the kid who punches another child and then gets furious that his hand now hurts. He always finds reasons to justify his own actions, often at the expense of others. There is no sense of consequences because he will always find a way to blame someone else for his real and imagined hurts, and the resulting retaliatory actions are often severe, completely out of proportion to the original issue.
Yes it definitely feels sometimes that the current system does not encourage empathy. It has been said that we are incubating a generation of self absorbed narcissists, an unwitting result of the smart phones. The face presented to the world is so heavily “filtered” that there is just no way to sense any underlying emotion.
But I have faith in technology. Maybe someday soon, there will be the ability to post pictures of a glowing couple on Facebook with the accompanying icon- “they hate each other but staying together for kids” or “I’m too old to date new people, it’s easier to stay status quo”.

A dissection of empathy
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