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Empathy Is the Superpower You Need

See what others can't.

“If you don’t share someone’s pain, you can never understand them.” ―Nagato

Psychiatrist Helen Riess was a little bit hesitant. She was about to embark on a life-changing experiment. One of her students wanted to find out if empathy could make the heart rate of two people be in sync — or not.

A doctor-patient relationship seemed like the perfect scenario. Dr. Riess finally agreed to be videotaped and hooked up to some cables. A confident young patient decided to join the experience.

Later, when she looked at the results, the psychiatrist was blown away. Both the patient’s tracings and hers were in sync—but for the wrong reason. She would soon find out that, as a psychiatrist, she was less empathetic than she thought.

Marten Newhall /Unsplash
Source: Marten Newhall /Unsplash

This experiment would become a career-defining one for Dr. Riess — it helped her see what most of us miss.

Are You Wired for Empathy?

Our society is experiencing an empathy deficit.

For many, technology is making the world increasingly anxious, unhappy, and lonely, according to the Global Risks Report 2019. We can blame it on technology, however, or we can do something about it.

Empathy is a superpower — we need to practice it regularly, not on rare occasions. Empaths are highly sensitive people that are spiritually open and good listeners — they are highly attuned to other people’s moods, good and bad.

But don’t write yourself off. We all have this superpower. We need to cultivate it.

Emotional Empathy helps us see other people’s pain. Neuroscientists discovered that specific brain cells become active when someone is suffering. These "mirror neurons" reflect what others feel — they make their pain visible.

Cognitive Empathy, on the other hand, is about understanding people. It doesn’t require suffering as they do. Psychologists also called it "perspective-taking." It’s an effort to understand how others behave, think, or feel.

“A world without empathy is inconceivable.” —Mark Davis

For some experts, empathy is hard-wired. But a Stanford University study shows that it's a superpower that we can control. People who believe empathy is not a fixed trait spend more time listening to others — they show a greater willingness to help.

Our nature is to collaborate with other humans.

Professor Mark Davis says he can’t imagine people without the capacity to feel for others. Babies are born with that unique superpower, and  no one has taught them to be empathetic.

Empathy might be declining, but it’s on us to reverse the trend.

This "social glue" skill can be developed with practice and discipline. It requires recognizing and understanding our emotions so we can see other people’s feelings.

As Borba said, “Kids are so used to looking down, instead of looking up. You don’t learn empathy and face-to-face connection if you’re looking down and texting." Becoming more empathetic requires interacting with people.

Empathy Is Seeing the Pain

When Dr. Helen Riess reviewed the results of her experiment, she realized her patient and her were in sync — but for different reasons.

Though both tracings were synchronized, her patients were moving up and down very quickly while Riess’ were slower.

The psychiatrist was blown away by how her calm, self-confident appearing woman was actually experiencing massive anxiety. The doctor felt they were in sync. She didn’t realize what was really going on inside her patient. However, the young woman wasn’t surprised by the results at all — she lived with anxiety every day, but no one has seen her pain before.

Moved by this revelation, Dr. Riess reviewed all the videos and started seeing what seemed silent before. She discovered how the highest peaks of her patient’s tracings coincided with unnoticed gestures — flicking her hair or subtly changing her tone of voice.

As Riess explains in this TEDx talk, the experiment became a turning point for both — their work went to a deeper level. The patient was able to lose weight. She finally let go of a huge emotional burden.

Both women started seeing each other clearly.

Empathy is not feeling what other people feel but seeing their pain. The word empathy was inspired by the German aesthetic term Einfühlung, meaning “feeling into.” We can witness other people’s emotions. We cannot feel them as they do, but we can be present.

But, when we get anxious or frustrated, we stop seeing other people.

Unleash Your Superpower

Being empathetic is looking at others through their lens, not ours. We say hello to others so they can become present. We welcome their emotions, perspectives, and uniqueness.

At Liberationist, empathy plays a crucial role in everything we do. It helps us liberate the best version of leaders and their teams. When they start seeing each other, collaboration and trust skyrocket.

Empathy is more than a skill; it’s an invitation.

In the Zulu tribe, the word for ‘hello’ is ‘Sawubona,’ which means “I see you” and the response, ‘Ngikhona’ means “I am here.”

Empathy is not an emotion, but being in sync —developing this superpower requires effort.

We must practice seeing other people’s pain. To understand their emotions. And appreciate their uniqueness.

Empathy is not about feeling pity for others but accepting their feelings as valid. It’s not trying to feel like them either — but understanding what they are experiencing. We listen to their stories within the proper emotional context.

We don’t need to read someone else’s mind to be empathetic. It requires understanding the depth of their feelings.

Empathy is being in sync with someone else’s emotions — it’s a superpower that makes people visible.

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