Boosting Empathy

How to Be More Empathetic

“I feel your pain,” is much more than a figure of speech. 

Did you know that there are distinct differences between sympathy and empathy? Let’s start with the definitions. To be sympathetic is to feel pity about another person’s misfortune, whereas empathy is the ability to consider and share the feelings of the other. 

Empathy is an evolutionary behaviour. That means that it’s vital to human survival which is why it is a trait that has lasted over time. To understand empathy better, it helps to know that empathy promotes prosocial behaviour isn’t just a fixed trait, but something you can develop and hone over time. The truth is, we need empathy. Our ability to resonate with and understand others’ pain is part of what allows us to help each other. Not to mention, it reduces psychological distress, the way we interact with others, and shifts our worldviews into a more understanding stance. 

But empathy isn’t just an abstract feeling, it promotes neurochemical messages that activate parts of the brain related to mirroring the actions of others. It does this by stimulating the motor and sensory areas in the observer’s brain. So, if you watch someone touch a hot plate, shriek, and remove their hand from the plate, your own motor and sensory system activates and you might flinch and grimace. You feel for them. This can lead you to unconsciously mimic their facial expressions and postures (more so than a person who is less empathetic). For instance, you might find yourself slumped after talking to someone who is really sad. 

We can see how this works from the first neuroimaging study on empathy where 16 female volunteers received a brain scan as they were administered an electric shock to their hands. The pain matrix was activated in their brain. Next, they received a signal that their partners were receiving a shock and this activated a lot (but not all) of the pain matrix in their brain. There’s a biological reason why the pain is attenuated too. It’s just enough to activate your relational skills and enable you to help without overwhelming you to the point that you can’t relieve another person’s distress. Your brain is actively working to put you in the other person’s shoes to gather insight on what they’re thinking and feeling. 

Empathy is especially useful when it comes to substance use challenges, whether you are struggling, or your employee, family member or friend is up against challenges. It helps to identify with their pain and keeps judgment out of the picture. Empathy is like a muscle, it improves with targeted practice, it needs rest, and it can be difficult to develop at times. Here are some ways you can improve your empathy for those you love who experience difficulty with substance use:

  • Start a conversation with a stranger or invite a colleague or neighbour you don’t know very well for a walk or a meal
  • Talk about more than small talk, perhaps you have a hot topic to discuss for the day
  • Put your phone away and be in the moment when you’re in an interaction, it could be taking a 10-minute walk with a friend without bringing your phone with you
  • Learn more about someone’s routine or try out one of their passions so that you can relate to them better
  • Think more about the reasons a person behaves in a certain way. For instance, if they are reactive, think about their underlying stressors, sleep patterns, and life challenges
  • Join a shared cause like a community garden or a planning committee

You gain empathy through taking steps in other people’s shoes. It starts by thinking about and imagining their experience, listening closely without judgment and soon the visual and sensory networks of your brain have expanded. Just think about how the regions of your brain might light up in neuroimaging if you worked at empathy a little bit each day and what kind of impact that could have on the world around you.

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