Some people are more empathetic than others. They are able to sense the feelings of others and empathize with them more than others. It is believed that this difference in empathy levels is due to genetics, personality traits, and neurological factors.
Hereditary empathy may be related to how people’s brains are wired. One study found that the volume of gray matter in certain regions of the brain predicts how empathetic a person is. An accumulation of gray matter in the insula is linked to a person being more empathetic than someone who does not.
While you may have more or less innate empathy based on your brain composition, the ability to sense other people’s thoughts, feelings, and needs can be developed further in a number of ways.
By observing others
At an early age, children are taught by example to recognize and respect the feelings, wants, and needs of others which enables them to develop into adults with a high level of empathy. You first learn to empathize by watching and mimicking others. As children grow older, they begin to recognize their own emotions and relate those emotions to what they observed in others.
To grow your empathy, pay close attention to the interpersonal interactions of people you know that have a high level of empathy. Then try mimicking what they do. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Not everything they do will work or resonate with you. But you want to identify and adopt the bits that work for you.
In cases where a child grows into an adult who is not particularly adept at getting into the minds of other people, it may be that the child never had to work to obtain the approval of his or her family or peers. The child may have had his or her whims indulged from early on.
Parents and other adults heap praise on children when they respond to social cues in what is considered the correct way. Even the child of a self-centered parent learns that the way to succeed in life is by pleasing others. In fact, children of narcissistic parents often develop high levels of empathy as they have to constantly seek the approval of the narcissist, predict their emotional state, and answer to their needs.
Positive reinforcement does not necessarily have to come from others. You can reward yourself in any way you choose. You could note your achievements in a gratitude journal or gift yourself something special for every set number of times you are there for a friend in need. If you have a significant other or close confidant, you can share your journey and successes with them. If they are empathetic people, they won’t hesitate to celebrate your accomplishments.
Lessons in empathy
Taking turns, sharing, listening when others speak, and other etiquette rules can be taught. Even children with forceful personalities from the start who attempt to get their way by being bossy, commanding, or domineering can be taught.
People tend to stick with what works, if you have been successful in bullying or badgering others with little or no backlash, then you have been conditioned toward apathy. To become more empathetic toward others in your adult life, you must be willing to remake your mind. Rather than bulldozing your way through situations, stop and take a breath. That pause makes room for the person needing your empathy to provide you with the social cues and background information to respond appropriately.
It will not happen overnight, but if you commit to the process and are willing to stick with it, eventually you will change the way you think and act.