We have all heard at one time or another “You can’t really understand another person’s experience until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” What does this phrase mean? I often take this expression to mean that before I judge someone else I should take his or her perspective and understand how he or she sees the issue at hand. The basic meaning of this phrase is empathy. Before we proceed it is important to define the term empathy.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary (2016) defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”
Empathy is hardwired into the each of us from an early age. Infants, for example, are able to grasp the skill with ease. Consider when one baby cries and another baby starts to weep. At first, it might seem like there is nothing special about this event. With closer examination we begin to revel that event infants are capable of putting him or herself into the metaphorical shoes of another. Empathy is a complex skill set.
According to Preston and de Waal (2003) human infants as young as 14 months old are able to respond the distress of another. Empathy is a form of perspective taking. Humans like other sentient animals have the capacity to feel what another is feeling. The authors cite research that suggests mirror neurons are the mechanism by which empathy is mediated. Mirror neurons are brain cells that fire when someone not only performs an action, but also when that person observes someone else make the same movement. The easiest way to experience this is to consider when one person yawns and you do the same exact movement. Contagious as it may be yawning is a form of empathetic interaction (Campbell and de Waal, 2011). Research into empathy is fascinating (Ok that’s my opinion). Scholars have attempted to understand how the brain produces empathy and the various brain and neuro systems used when we use our capacity for empathy. However, a discussion of brain and neuroscience understanding of empathy is well beyond this post.
Let us go back to the image of a child.
When you smile at a child and the child returns the gesture that is an example of mirror neurons in progress. Humans are capable of doing this with higher order emotional data such as feeling sadness when someone has lost a close loved one (even if he or she did not know the person). Empathy often times requires active listening skills. It requires the listener to pay attention to what the speaker is saying. What is also required is attention to the speaker and an ability to reflect back what was communicated. Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is not an easy task. One cannot know fully what someone else is experiencing. We can only attempt to understand. Thus, empathy is our mind’s ability to put our self in the other person’s position and feel what it must be like to be him or her.
If you have ever been in a dialogue with someone who was not listening or could not comprehend your problem, then you understand the experience of someone lacking empathy. Feeling a lack of empathy can leave one to feel invalidated and unheard. It has been my experience that when I feel no empathy that communication shuts down. Chronic feelings of invalidation can lead one to feel depressed, lonely, isolated, and despairing. Fortunately, empathy is not one of those skills that is a use it or lose it type. Empathy can be developed. Just like the adage says you have to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. That implies action. Here are some ways to develop empathy.
Ways to Develop Empathy
Several recent research studies have shown that mindfulness-based interventions can help an individual to develop or cultivate empathy (Birnie, Speca, & Carlson, 2010; Neely, Schallert, Mohammed, Roberts, & Chen, 2009). Mindfulness allows one to stay in the present moment and to develop a sense of loving-kindness. There is a growing body of research that suggests that reading helps individuals to develop and grow in their ability to use empathy. Sometimes we have difficult experiences in our past that are difficult to overcome. This is where therapy comes into play.
In therapy one is able to work through difficult experiences such as trauma and loss which directly have an impact on our ability to be empathic. It is difficult albeit impossible at times to have empathy for someone else when one does not feel empathy for one’s self. It is important to have empathy and compassion for self and this is where mindfulness practice comes into play. Mindfulness teaches individuals to be nonjudgemental. One of my favorite mindfulness practices I teach people in session is loving kindness mediation. In this meditation style individuals are guided to direct their attention sending positive energy and emotions to a series of people, a stranger, him or her self, other sentient beings, someone who hurt them, etc. The purpose is to cultivate a loving presence first and foremost for the self. The secondary gain is compassion and empathy for others. The ability to be empathic requires one to live one’s live. It is from the lived experience that one is able to better understand another. Each experience we have is another step to understanding the diverse nature of humanity.
Birnie, K., Speca, M., & Carlson, L. E. (2010). Exploring Self-compassion and Empathy in the Context of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction ( MBSR ). doi:10.1002/smi.1305
Campbell, M. W., & de Waal, F. B. M. (2011). Ingroup-outgroup bias in contagious yawning by chimpanzees supports link to empathy. PLoS ONE, 6(4). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0018283
Empathy [Def. 2]. (n.d.). Merriam-Webster Online. In Merriam-Webster. Retrieved May 10, 2016, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/citation.
Neely, M. E., Schallert, Æ. D. L., Mohammed, S. S., Roberts, Æ. R. M., & Chen, Y. (2009). Self-kindness when facing stress : The role of self-compassion , goal regulation , and support in college students ’ well-being, 88–97. doi:10.1007/s11031-008-9119-8
Preston, S. D., & de Waal, F. B. M. (2003). Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases. Behavioral and Brain Sciences (Vol. 25). doi:10.1017/S0140525X02000018