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Empathy Is the Way Forward

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When you think about the evolution of humankind and the reasons we’ve become the most advanced species on Earth, our problem-solving skills and our ability to work together towards a bigger common goal are often seen as humanity’s greatest assets. Biologically, humans are social creatures; living among others and cooperating with them is hard-coded into our brains. Unlike more solitary species, we typically fare really badly when left alone, separated from the group. We struggle to survive both physically and emotionally when we are on our own, and though, nowadays, we are no longer forced to survive in jungles, steppes, or savannas, our need (and instinct) to be among other people is as strong as ever.

The individual and the group

In a way, it makes sense to look at groups of humans as singular entities, as the members of such groups often have similar goals, desires, fears, and needs. But if a group is an entity, then what determines if it’s able to achieve its common goals and meet its essential needs. Let’s say, for example, that, on the one hand, you have a group of highly skilled, but also highly selfish individuals, and on the other, there’s another group of people who aren’t as skilled but are empathetic and selfless, and care deeply about the needs of their comrades. Which group do you think has a higher chance of sticking together and thriving in the long run? My money’s on the latter.

You see, while being a bright individual with a wide skill set is important, the things you can do on your own pale in comparison to what a team of like-minded people can achieve, and one of the key ingredients to being an effective member of such a team is empathy. Yes, this may seem like an unusual quality that has little to do with personal success, but that’s the thing – collective rather than personal success should be the focus. Consider this: would you prefer to be the only person in a group of people with one apple while everyone else has none, or be in a group where each member has ten apples, but you also have ten apples? I know what I’d choose.

Why is empathy sometimes seen as weakness?

It’s easy to see why some may consider empathy as an undesirable quality that only makes a person weaker. After all, empathetic people are less likely to pursue their interests if that would come at the cost of someone else’s happiness. Furthermore, empathy also often causes you to sacrifice your own desires, wishes, needs, and even dreams for the sake of other people. Seen from this perspective, empathy can, indeed, make a person’s life more difficult. It is a quality that often demands that you take the more difficult path and do something that may not be in your best personal interest. However, this is also a very narrow-minded perspective and narrow-mindedness rarely, if ever, leads to any kind of long-term improvement for anyone.

Varying levels of empathy

When talking about empathy, it cannot be denied that, objectively, some people are simply more predisposed to be empathetic than others. For instance, in general, women are more empathetic than men. Other factors, such as religion, culture, upbringing, and even genetics, also play a role in determining how empathetic a person is likely to be. However, that is not to say that you cannot change your empathy levels. 

Let’s say that you are innately less empathetic due to the aforementioned factors. This can make it difficult for you to understand other people’s feelings and put yourself in their shoes. Many people who are like that often receive criticism and might even be called insensitive and callous, even though it’s largely not their fault for being that way. The good news here is that, even if your capacity to feel empathy may not be as big as that of somebody else, you can most certainly learn to be more empathetic. A good way to do this is first attaining a deeper understanding of the concept of empathy and learning why it’s an important and necessary quality that’s useful for everyone. There’s a lot of great literature on the topic, and if you prefer a more systemized approach, joining a life skills course can also be really helpful.

Ultimately, it all boils down to shifting your point of view and understanding the simple truth that the only way for us, as a species, to move towards a better future is if we do it together.

Don’t allow your empathy to be exploited

On the other side of the spectrum, there are those who can be so attuned to the emotions of others that they can sense even the slightest shift in someone else’s mental state and instinctively feel how that other person is feeling. This can be a great quality in many professions (teachers, therapists, mentors, and team leaders), but if the person isn’t careful and doesn’t know how to keep their own emotions in check, their sensitivity and empathy can be easily exploited by manipulative and toxic people. 

If you can easily empathise with others, a less benevolent person can use that against you and try to manipulate you by always playing the victim in confrontational situations. So, if you are a highly empathetic person, you should train your mind to only use empathy when doing so is warranted and deserved. Once again, delving deeper into the topic of empathy and the reasons why it’s an important and helpful quality is a good starting point.

Adam Mulligan, a psychology graduate from the University of Hertfordshire, has a keen interest in the fields of mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.

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