The Importance of Empathy

 In Psychotherapy, Toronto Therapist

importance of empathyOn CBS This Morning, the authors, David Kelley and Tom Kelley, of “Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All” talked about one of the keys to unleashing creativity: Empathy.

It had me thinking that a completely different discussion would be necessary to explore what it would mean to unleash empathy.  Empathy is also a key to the quality of every relationship in our lives (including ourselves), and our experience of the world.

Firstly, what is empathy?  It is defined on Wikipedia as:

Empathy has many different definitions that encompass a broad range of emotional states, from caring for other people and having a desire to help them, to experiencing emotions that match another person’s emotions, to knowing what the other person is thinking or feeling, to blurring the line between self and other.

Yet, empathy is different from sympathy or pity:

Sympathy or empathic concern is the feeling of compassion or concern for another, the wish to see them better off or happier. Pity is feeling that another is in trouble and in need of help as they cannot fix their problems themselves, often described as “feeling sorry” for someone.

Perhaps it would shed further light by citing James Coan, a psychology professor in University of Virginia’s College of Arts & Sciences, who published his study in August’s Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.  As posted in Science Daily:

“The correlation between self and friend was remarkably similar,” Coan said. “The finding shows the brain’s remarkable capacity to model self to others; that people close to us become a part of ourselves, and that is not just metaphor or poetry, it’s very real. Literally we are under threat when a friend is under threat. But not so when a stranger is under threat.”

Coan said this likely is because humans need to have friends and allies who they can side with and see as being the same as themselves. And as people spend more time together, they become more similar.

“It’s essentially a breakdown of self and other; our self comes to include the people we become close to,” Coan said. “If a friend is under threat, it becomes the same as if we ourselves are under threat. We can understand the pain or difficulty they may be going through in the same way we understand our own pain.”

This likely is the source of empathy, and part of the evolutionary process, Coan reasons. “A threat to ourselves is a threat to our resources,” he said. “Threats can take things away from us. But when we develop friendships, people we can trust and rely on who in essence become we, then our resources are expanded, we gain. Your goal becomes my goal. It’s a part of our survivability.”

Therapy can be a powerful process to experience and develop empathy.

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