You can become more empathetic too

I love the MBTI. And so do many others. One of the things I noticed while studying behavior, our brain and how people work with a tool like the MBTI is how determined many of us are to find proof of why we are unable to do certain things or develop certain behavior. Empathy is one of those things: Some of the MBTI personalities are prone to have less to no empathy, and so people that have a preference for such a type get their confirmation: We do not have to be empathic. While other personality types are even called ‘the empaths‘ for example, because their preference shows a nature of empathy and empathetic behavior. So, for me it means something to find out, curiousity, is empathy geneticaly set or is it taught and developed over time? Is it bound to nature, or created by nurture?

What is empathy?

We all have a certain idea on what empathy means, mostly it will be connected to understanding how other people feel and being able to understand emotions, from yourself and others, or show emotions yourself. The following quote makes sense to me in this context:

The term “empathy” is used to describe a wide range of experiences. Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.

Berkely definition of empathy

So taking this apart you see it’s an ability that one has and goes hand in hand with being able to imagine how someone else’s emotions could be. This matters for many reasons, but I will pick one out in specific. We’re living in the age of individualism and everyone tries to survive in the ratrace that the 21st century has become. It can be a lonely place, filled with people, busy surviving. Being able to understand how this can be for others, being able to communicate based on what you think they might feel or think, or otherwise being able to create common ground out of understanding makes everything easier.

Quite often you see people arguing over apparently nothing. Many relationships end over seemingly simple things. Conflict at work comes up over small misunderstandings. The people you lead or manage, or those that lead or manage you, do not seem to be able to understand what you do and how you do it. It’s all part of empathy. From my perspective empathy is one of the key ingredients for succes, health and happiness.

Why empathy matters

You might think, how can things become better if I’m the only one understanding others? Well, I fit the category of ‘the empath’s’ and I can tell you: a lot. Simply for understanding that the person that just cut you off on the highway, didn’t do this to hurt your feelings, but because he or she went from home too late, endures a lot of work stress, of is just agitated because their socks don’t match – it makes all the difference. Empathy put things in perspective: Most of the time the things that happen and the emotions that follows are not about you. They’re about the other person. Being able to understand this helps to not get involved in it or adopt it.

The other way around it helps if you understand how people feel if you like them to do something for you. For example: I would never be rude or blunt to the person making my food. I need this person to make the best food possible for me, not just because I pay for it, but because the person wants to. Motivation can be achieved through empathy, by understanding other people’s needs and changing your approach based on this.

But I’m not an empath and I have no empathy

Unless you’re braindamaged you can learn to become empathetic and develop at least some empathy. I’ve read enough research to be quite clear on this: there is no excuse for not being more empathetic . It is however, an ability, that will not be developed in everyone equally. Most of the development took place in your childhood, so if you are overly sensitive and empathetic , or lack empathy completely, there is probably a reason to be found in your development why this is how it is. But not to worry, we are never too old to learn and develop, so now you’re aware, you can work on it.

Here a quote from one of the research articles I found on this. So yes, in part your empathy comes from your genes, but cognitive empathy in particular is mostly something you learned to do.

Based on the results of these tests, Melcher and colleagues estimate that affective empathy is between 52-57 percent heritable, whereas cognitive empathy is less determined by genetics—about 27 percent heritable, presumably influenced more by environment and learning experiences.

Berkeley research on empathy

Empathy and the MBTI

So your preference in the MBTI tells you you’re an empath, or just the other way around, do not have much empathy developed? Something I will come back to later is the simple fact that your preference in the MBTI is merely the result of who you’ve become, and it’s not who you are. Another thing to remember is that from all the Jungian cognitive processes (or functions, as they where called traditionally), you use all of them. Unless, like I said before, you have some sort of mental illness.

Combine this with the understanding that empathy is something that is for a large part learned, you can see where this is going: If you feel overwhelmed in empathy you can learn how to keep a little more distance from the emotions of others and the other way around, if you feel like you lack empathy and have a hard time understand other people’s feelings, you can learn this as well.

You are in no way limited by your preference in the MBTI type you found for yourself, so please don’t use it as an excuse not to grow and develop. And make Jung and Myers and Briggs proud: the whole idea was to support personal development by understanding yourself and others better, not to have an excuses not to do anything.

Learning and empathy

Development as a person is a process and takes time. As a coach I get to learn many people on many levels of development and growth and I know that each and every one of you are unique in this and require a unique approach. There is no one size fits all solution to a question how to change or how to learn. There are a few things I can share nonetheless.

Be curious if you’re not sure. Learning to develop empathy is all about asking questions. What did you observe and what did the person you observed feel at the time? Leave any judgement at home: Feelings are what they are, no matter what you think of them.

Ask yourself if you should have ownership if you feel overwhelmed. Sometimes when you are able to feel or notice what others feel or think you might get involved in those feelings, like they’re your own. Adopting other people’s feelings is unhealthy for you and the person you’re empathic with. Ask yourself: are these my feelings to have, or am I adopting the feeling of others?

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