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Personal Origins of Empathy: An Open Discussion

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posted on Apr, 26 2010 @ 12:16 PM
Definition of Empathy

In short empathy is an ability (be it innate and mystical or a parlor trick of the brain) to feel the emotions of others. You get to experience what another person is feeling. I think it would be pretentious of me to claim I have the answers to why I think empathy occurs just because I study psychology. Frankly I do not have all the answers, never will and in a way don’t want them all. So instead, what I want to do is open for discussion and debate if needed. Here are the answers I am looking for:

(please bear in mind this is not ALL the relevant answer, rather a starting off point for the discussion. As always in my threads feel free to add to this and evolve it)

1. What is empathy? I posted what I think to be a concise definition but as well know, an abstract concept such as empathy or love or hate should not be defined by one for all but rather one for himself. So what do you think empathy is? Is that definition clear cut and seals the deal or is there more to it? Perhaps you completely disagree with the definition.

2. What are the origins? How does it work? Is it a cosmic force based in spirituality and religion? Do we connect on a spiritual level? It is a mere set of tricks your brain uses such as verbal and nonverbal cues? Are we simply reading faces and text and using the level of affect to determine mood and feeling?

3. Are you empathic? To what degree? Can you turn it on and off? Does it work only on humans?

4. Are there side effects to being empathic? Does it exhaust you or hurt you personally? Do you wish you could turn it off?

So there ya have it…a nice open discussion for all

((now with 50% less pretentious behavior :-p ))

Ok so I suppose I will go ahead and put out my thoughts.

I have been described and also self-describe as a reasonably strong empath. I always refrain from using the word powerful to describe a ‘gift’ of mine. To me using such words as powerful and gift make me feel like I am describing myself as above the rest. On the contrary, I think I am just like the rest. We all have abilities at which we excel and those at which we falter. On one hand I can read people’s emotions like an open book. On the other hand I am very vulnerable to personal criticism and wear my emotions like a fine coat.

Now as to what I think empathy is…I think the stated definition is fairly sound. Feeling emotion is, in my opinion of course, natural to all of us. The only difference is to what degree we experience it.


((a little primer for conversation-sake))

I have a funny way about me that sometimes I swap back and forth on an idea until I make my concrete decision. I will read into one perspective and absorb it, then read another and absorb that as well. Then I will sit and look at the pros and cons of each and agree with each until I find my decision. Though in reality that is probably not unique and I am sure many others function the same way. When I read into empathy I can see a very physical and psychological side to it but I also see a very spiritual version of it as well. In this specific case, I think my decision is to say both.

Argument for the physical and psychological side:

We know that conversation is more than just words. Active listening involves verbal cues, nonverbal cues, body language and even the little hesitations that exist in the conversation. All of them in my opinion ((no it isn’t an original thought I am claiming)) comes down to pattern recognition. From our early years ((sometimes as early as two or younger)) we learn to recognize facial and vocal patterns. If at a young age you are spilling a drink on the carpet your parent might calmly say “no” or “be careful.” On the other hand when you as a toddler are prepared to touch a 450 degree open oven door you might get a much harsher reaction “NO!” Now clearly the parent is merely trying to protect you because obviously spilling on a carpet and the potential for severely burning your hand carry with it many different consequences.

But from that age we start to realize we can tell the difference in sincerity and intensity of our parent and as we grow we translate that to our friends, siblings, lovers, professional colleagues or any other type of relationship. So we recognize patterns and as we learn we get more efficient at it. Our ability to recognize patterns might determine the level of ability the individual has if we were we to test his abilities compared to an average. So as we travel along we meet people and we read their faces and bodies and feel their voices as we converse and thus we start to determine what is happening underneath. And because of that we begin to feel their side of things so long as we don’t lack that programming of empathy such as a true clinical psychopathic individual. I think the same can be achieved over text although perhaps it takes a bit more skill. If you are commonly getting an “I love you” or a giggle or an LMAO from a friend and suddenly she stops those common behaviors, that can be a cue that something has changed. I think many of us in the internet world and in the normal world know the feeling of dread when something is said and suddenly your techno mate or internet friend suddenly doesn’t say “I love you” or giggles. You begin to wonder what went wrong and once you pass the fear response you begin to experience his or her pain.

Argument for the spiritual side:

So what about those people you are not around? Many of us hear or personally experience stories of long-distance sharing of feelings. I have had a few days where I am not in contact with my wife HarlequinRaven and suddenly I get the feeling she is hurting. So I call or email only to find out I am indeed correct. My aunts (both twins) were on different continents when my father passed on. Obviously the aunt at home knew immediately but that doesn’t explain how suddenly my other aunt in Europe called home ten minutes later and asked specifically “What is wrong with George (father)?” The thing is I am not some unique or special deity here. I don’t have superpowers to read my wife’s mind from 20 miles away. I have heard many stories like this so it gets me to thinking that perhaps (religion aside) there is indeed a spiritual connection between all. Perhaps it is just the shape and size of that connection that determines how intense your personal relation to your friend’s emotions will be.

As far as side effects go, I think they do definitely exist. When I feel my wife is sad, I am sad. I cannot shut it off. Again, whether you think empathy is the spirit, magic, or based in concrete reality isn’t the issue in my opinion. If you experience it then you experience it whether it was your brain working hard to determine the other person’s response and feelings or whether it was a strong spiritual and psychic connection that brought you to your determination. I think another side effect is that I wear my emotions outwardly for all to see. I do truly believe that empathy is a trait shared by most so if I can read you how can you not read me as well? So I think eventually I realized that to some degree everyone can do it. So I figured why fight it? The problem is that leads me to be a vulnerable individual and at times a bit fragile on the social level.

So…there you have it

Let’s hear what you think


posted on Apr, 26 2010 @ 05:37 PM
reply to post by KyoZero

The thing that I'm always puzzled about with empathy, is whether you are just recalling similar feelings that you've experienced and just sub-consciously projecting them onto to another person, or whether there is a more spiritual side where you are actually ''sharing'' their feelings/vibes/energies.

I'm pretty sure there is an element of projecting your own experiences because in many cases there is a clear correlation between a bad childhood/not receiving love from parents and a lack of empathy in some people later in life.
At the same time, there are others raised in those surroundings that show a great deal of empathy, so I really don't know.

I personally don't think there is a clear definition of empathy, as I find it often gets blurred with compassion, altruism and also many other emotions that may be triggered by the original freeling of empathy.
For example, when I read a story that makes my blood boil about some cruelty towards another person, I often get consumed with anger.
Am I actually putting myself in the place of the victim, and reacting empathetically as if it was me that was wronged ? Or am I just angry about the injustice in general ?

It's always quite confusing, and at times uncomfortable to study one's own emotions in an analytical fashion.

posted on Apr, 26 2010 @ 05:46 PM
Empathy is the spirits ability to harmonize with the emotional state of another spirit. Spirit is in everything. If there isn't a common essence there can be no relationship, no knowledge of the other. We touch by perceiving the energy of the object touched. We see by harmonizing our light with the light of the other. Even at a distance, and even great distances, spirits connected to each other can perceive the feeling, thinking states of the other being.

posted on Apr, 26 2010 @ 05:50 PM
For me, Empathy is trying to put yourself into another's position, you will never fully understand how another is feeling, but you can empathize, you can try and understand.

For instance, say the problems in the middle east. You can try and empathize with both Palestinian and the Israeli cause. You will never understand how it feels to be on the recieving end of an Israeli assault and you will never understand how it feels to be threstened from Palastinian suicide bombers.

But,if you can recognise the issues from both perspectives by using empathy, it can help you understand the situation better.

posted on Apr, 27 2010 @ 07:22 AM
reply to post by woodwardjnr

Sounds like a much simpler psychological concept of gender appreciation. You as a male (just making a generalisation) can empathize with a female but you'll never fully understand...the point is at least you tried

Thanks all for the responses


posted on Apr, 27 2010 @ 08:37 AM
Always walk a mile in another man's shoes. If you don't like them, you're a mile away and have his shoes!

IMHO empathy is a "normal" human trait. It requires little more than calming yourself and listening to other people. Really listening.

My only ideas about it's mechanism relate to frequency, the fact that everythin is buzzing at it's own pace. An example would be semi precious stones. They have a "vibe", which empaths would be good at picking up.

The fact that you're not dealing with stones, but people, makes it a spiritual question. Your really listening enhances what you already know about body language, you're just hearing it much clearer.

Emotion is also energy which can be passed between people. As much as you can receive vibes, you can create them, and send them out. Both giving and recceieving energy takes effort, and would leave you tired.

When you feel how bad other people's shoes are, your own don't feel too bad ;-)

posted on Apr, 27 2010 @ 08:42 AM
Ugh...empathy, sometimes the bane of my existence. I believe that we are 'a part of the Whole', that we're all connected, that we are all 1, just different aspects of. It's a much deeper level than compassion. Compassion is being able to put urself in ones place and realize how the situation would affect u or urs. I think compassion is a conscious decision, one u have to stop and think about. I cannot control my empathy, I'm there, whether I want to be or not. I can feel it coming but have little time between realizing it's coming and being in the midst of it. There's no real 'build-up' of emotion, it pretty much hits me fast and hard. I'm just as empathetic with happy situations as I am with sad, unfortunately there seems to be more trajic happenings than not. I cry for joy for others just as easy. There are times when I wish I could turn it off as it can effect my daily life and how I function. The emotion I feel is so heavy, physically feels heavy. On the other hand if I didnt have this sensitivity towards others I'd be like so many others, unempathetic. As much as it affects me, I'd rather be this way than not. I'll get a lot of flack, I'm sure, but I feel empathy is the next step up in our evolution. I'm not saying I'm better or that others are less in any way, just different. Like fish that develop 'filters' to deal with their changing surroundings, they arent any better than the other fish, just different to deal with the changes being made. My empathy carries over to animals sometimes but not to the extent of humans. I'm also empathetic to the Earth. I cry over beautiful sights, I cry over the destruction of. I am so empathetic it's maddening. My empathy can sometimes be heavy burden to carry. I cant control it at all. Doesnt matter where I'm at or what I'm doing, which is sometimes is embarrassing. A lot of ppl cant/dont understand why I'm so 'sensitive' or 'emotional' when it comes to others. I dont understand why others dont feel what I feel, it boggles me at times. . It is exhausting. I feel as if Ive experienced the situation 1st hand. It can cause a temporary state of depression in me. Whether I see it, hear it or read it, I'm affected the same either way. Have u ever seen a movie or something so sad it makes ur heartwrench? Thats what my heart feels like sometimes when I see something, someone in pain or torment, only it's not temporary, its constant until it passes. My question is why are some from the same family empathetic and some not? I have 4 other siblings and 3 of them are so unempathic its crazy. Whats the deal with that? Is it a gene? I dont think it's learned, theres just me and weve all had the same upbringing for the most part.

I realize my posts run-on and not very organized, sorry. Not my strong point.

[edit on 4/27/10 by Demetre]

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