One of the central lessons of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-Prize winning classic, To Kill A Mockingbird, is the importance of empathy. The most famous and memorable quotes occurs in chapter three, when Atticus Finch, a respected lawyer, is sharing an important life lesson with his daughter, Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Finch is defining empathy — sharing how another person feels, identifying with the struggles of a fellow human being — through the metaphor of walking in another person’s skin. That particular image is, perhaps, a bit too gruesome. Of course, he could have easily said, “you never really understand someone until you walk in their shoes.” But we can all agree that Finch’s image is much more memorable in a “Silence of the Lambs” kind of way. Can you feel me?
Empathy is often confused with sympathy or compassion. However, Finch’s compelling imagery helps to understand the key difference between empathy and sympathy. As we have noted, feeling empathy is stepping inside someone else’s shoes — being them, understanding their emotions, feeling their distress, and seeing things from their perspective. Sympathy is feeling concern or sorrow for someone as you stand on the sidelines, watching them muddle along a rough patch in life. You do not step out of your shoes and step into theirs. Psychiatrist Neel Burton elaborates: “[Sympathy], unlike empathy, does not involve a shared perspective or shared emotions, and while the facial expressions of sympathy do convey caring and concern, they do not convey shared distress.” Compassion, on the other hand, is more transformative, leading to action. Burton continues: “Compassion is more engaged than simple empathy, and is associated with an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object. With empathy, I share your emotions; with compassion I not only share your emotions but also elevate them into a universal and transcending experience. Compassion, which builds upon empathy, is one of the main motivators of altruism.” [emphasis added]
Brene Brown is an expert at walking in other people’s shoes. Brown, who is a research professor at the University of Houston, has spent the last two decades studying vulnerability, empathy, shame, and courage; she has written five books about her findings. One of her TED Talks, “The Power of Vulnerability” is one of the most viewed talks of all time. Brown defines empathy as “feeling with others” and believes that empathy is taught primarily by role modeling (specifically by parents, teachers, friends, and peers) and reading (eg, literature, history). To that list, legendary film critic Roger Ebert would add film; he wrote: “Movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” According to Brown, there are four qualities of empathy: 1. taking the perspective of another person; 2. suspending judgment; 3. recognizing emotion in others; and 4. communicating emotion.
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For further reading: Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brene Brown
Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions by Neel Burton