Is empathy a thing of the past?

photo of people using smartphones

Feeling heard and understood is a human need.

Have you ever needed someone to talk to who just understands? You were looking for empathy. Empathy is how we connect with others. Essentially, empathy is recognizing and understanding the thoughts and feelings of someone else. Empathy is an important part of our relationship with others. Furthermore, empathy is an important part of our relationship with ourselves. By getting in touch with our own emotions, we can learn to understand others’ emotions. This allows us to see things from their point of view.

Empathy is important.

As mentioned earlier, feeling heard and understood is one of the most basic human desires. We crave an authentic connection—a connection where we can be our true selves without feeling judged. Empathy allows us to connect and build strong relationships.

Furthermore, empathy plays an important role in our moral compass. Empathy is similar to compassion. When we have compassion for other people’s feelings, we are more likely to act in a way that does not hurt them. Without empathy, without compassion, we are often more focused on how we feel and receive things than on how our words or actions may be received. However, the difference between empathy and compassion is action. Empathy is passive, meaning we connect to one’s feelings. Compassion, on the other hand, is active, meaning we choose to act to help someone. For example, empathy is “I am sorry for your loss” because I have been there too and know what it is like to lose a loved one. On the other hand, compassion is empathy plus I am going to start a meal train for you to take off the pressure of feeding your family for a few weeks.

Empathy is not sympathy.

Empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably. However, empathy and sympathy are very different terms. Unlike compassion and empathy, sympathy is not about understanding someone’s feelings. Rather, sympathy is about feeling sad for someone else who is struggling. Sympathy is simply, “I am sorry for your loss.” Whereas, empathy was “I am sorry” because I can relate to your feelings. And, compassion was, “I am sorry, I have been there too, I am going to help you.”

When we are struggling, we often desire empathy and / or compassion, not necessarily sympathy. Sympathy is not a connection. And, at the base of all human need is the desire for connection.

Are we raising a generation without empathy?

Social media has blessed us with the ability to connect with anyone from anywhere around the world with the touch of a button. Unfortunately, social media has also provided us with the ability to communicate without seeing how people receive our content. Therefore, we have a whole generation learning to communicate based solely on their own point of view and no ability to see the other person’s reaction. We also have the power to push our energy into other people’s lives. Think about the mean comments people write, including to people they do not know. This has created a sense of entitlement where we believe that other people should receive our energy, even if its negative energy filled with hate and pain.

With the benefits and the drawbacks of social media, the question at hand is “is empathy a thing of the past?”

My opinion.

Empathy is a trait that many of us are born with. Empathy can also be learned through emotional training. Many of us are naturally empathetic, but that empathy is not being cultivated. For example, we spend most of our time communicating behind screens. Especially since March 2020, most of us have been primarily virtual. Over the past year, we engaged with screens more than we did with other human beings, face to face. Imagine growing up with that same scenario, where 90% of your communication is done through a screen—think phones, social media, school computers, television, video games. The world around you is you and a screen that allows access to the whole world.

The next generation is not growing up without empathy. Instead, this generation is growing up in a world that discourages the cultivation of empathy. There is no chance to truly connect, not with ourselves and not with others. Because of the amazing advantages technology and social media have provided us, we have started to forget the importance of building deeper connections. Furthermore, we have not been exposed to seeing the fallout of a lack of empathy behind a computer screen. When we press “send,” we do not see the person, how they receive it, or how it affects them.

Remember, feeling heard and understood is a human need. Social media can help bring us closer to people who also understand us. Social media can also bring us closer to people who choose to be mean and share content without thinking. Therefore, social media itself is not the problem, but rather the lack of true connection is.

Empathy is not a thing of the past; empathy is a very much alive. Thus, it is essential we start encouraging ourselves, our loved ones, and the younger generation to connect with the person on the other end of the screen—not simply the screen itself.

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