When we speak about empathy we are talking of a life skill beyond basic survival. A skill refined towards sensitive living. It is our ability to feel for another as if we too were going through a similar situation. The ability to feel the pains and joys of another.
It is an important component of relationships and attachments between people. It allows for real relationships to grow and mature. If you cannot feel the joys and pains of people you care and connect with, then the relationships remain very plastic. Being empathetic has benefits. It lets two people stay connected in ways of understanding that go beyond words.
Empathy gives room for people to feel accepted and this goes a long way to improve connections. Connecting with people is a good way to deal with stressful situations. When you tell another that you understand how they are feeling, it automatically improves the quality of the relationship. This is a good stress buster in difficult situations and prevents a burnout. “I know how you feel”, “I see how difficult this is for you”, and “I hear what you are saying”. All these are powerful empathetic phrases and can make a world of difference in communications.
Being empathetic will give you an opportunity to understand your own moral compass. When you empathise with another and say ‘I know how you feel and I get it’ you are also defining your own boundaries to be treated in a particular way. You are laying your codes of mortality down and saying this is acceptable by me and I know it is difficult but beyond that I fail to understand.
When you let your empathy become very fluid and accept all behaviours as understandable you end up hurting yourself. Such protection is a must if you want relationships to succeed. So being empathetic is good for your well-being. However, the concern lies in the studies that are today stating that in the world of the screen, in the form of television, computers, phones and tabs, the face time of real human contact has decreased. Cognitive functioning has improved but emotional understanding of each other has not.
People are able to tolerate each other superficially but not at a deeper level. Such communication might make true relationships a rare phenomenon.
Do we live in a world where our ability to empathise is directly related to how much time we spend on screen communications? Is empathy as virtual as our virtual reality?
Parent’s antennas should go bling bling, every time they find their children on the screen and this includes phones as well. A balance is needed as a family rule where the phone should not be allowed at certain places like the dinner table or at a family outing. An even better strategy is that children should be allowed to use their phone in exactly the same proportion of time they spend in human interactions.
Besides empathy, actual human relations allow people to understand the consequences of behaviours. On screen an emoji will not be able to express the kind of happiness or pain one goes through while interacting. Very graphic images of negative behaviours get buffered because they are on the screen. Witnessing a screen image of an accident is a completely different experience from witnessing a real accident. One will be virtual and the other will give you a post traumatic stress disorder. Emotions get blunted. This is dangerous because nobody can fathom the consequences of certain actions, nor understand the mood in which people are communicating.
Being emotionally desensitised can create a world where trust is difficult and meaningful relationships are rare.
Young kids must know and understand that poverty and disease are real things. When people are going through a tough time they need caring and understanding, not curiosity. Everybody has their own little narrative which is important to them.
There is a huge difference between having a hundred virtual relationships and a few quality ones. A real relationship teaches you to trust, because when you make eye contact with another person you can see their joy or pain. You can see their hope and despair. You can see truth and deceit. Eyes are called the window to the soul and that is exactly how communications between people should be. This is how we teach our kids to empathise. Ghosting in relationships is become popular. People end a relationship without an explanation. They just ghost. Disappear as if it never was. They cannot deal with the reality so they just ghost.
Being empathetic is good for your well-being. It will help you deal with some of your most difficult problems and more importantly it will assure you that this world is not such a bad place and people can be trusted.
(Writer is a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and the HOD of psychology at Carmel College for Women)