Emplasticity: Layers of Empathy

Emplasticity: Three Layers of Empathy

Empathy, we’ve all heard, “Put yourself in another’s shoes.” But do we ever really do this?

I know I haven’t. For many years I was a tourist, just looking out the window as the car drives by impoverished places, taking pictures of the situation only to go back to the safe confines of a hotel. I’d feel depressed, helpless, and lifeless. I didn’t understand the three layers of empathy.

But then I changed the way I traveled.  I worked at NGOs, stayed at local people’s houses, and took  language classes. I started to understand language, culture, and lifestyle. In just a few weeks to months,  I gained a deeper understanding of another culture or circumstance. 

Then, it went one layer even deeper. This was when I stayed at a Kakuma refugee camp (www.kakumaventures.com) in the desert. I had spent enough time in Africa to really understand what these people were going through. What was abnormal is now like daily life. What was odd becomes desired. What was once needed, is forgotten. What was sad turns into a conviction to change. What was despair is now, hope. The thoughts in the first layer – like “I feel for you” – or the second layer, “I understand” now vanish. Because I am one of you. This is when one truly can understand another.

I don’t know if there is an even deeper layer that a Peace Corps worker, soldier, or another humanitarian worker may feel, but those three layers of understanding mimicked layers of empathy. 

The discussion of empathy is an important one to have especially in regards to current events. It is also related to your ultimate wellbeing. Challenge yourself to be more empathetic and go three layers deep.

These layers or levels to experience another’s culture or life relate well to the three layers of empathy. For many years, psychologists have held the belief that there are three different types or levels of empathy. The first layer and most superficial, being cognitive empathy. This is a very logical level of empathy, it is all about knowing what the other person may feel and what they might be thinking. 

On a second, deeper, level lies emotional empathy. Emotional empathy is more than the logical layers in that our empathy becomes a gut feeling. Our emotions become intertwined with others some much so that we feel their pain and we celebrate their joys as our own- often without even thinking. Mirror neurons come into play with this, they are the neurons that enable us to react emotionally equally when we perform an action, and when we witness someone else perform the same action.

Deeper still is compassionate empathy. Rooted in the idea of not only feeling someone’s pain but understanding it. This is hard. Compassion involves considering the whole being of a person- How do they relate to you? What makes them tick? How can you understand them? Easier said than done. 

Empathy often has many names. Some say compassion (like we described above). Some say appreciation, even pity. Beware of limiting words like these. Compassion and empathy are limitless–short of being the person themself–there is no limit to where our empathy and compassion can go. Appreciation is one dimensional, as is its friend’s pity. To pity is to “feel bad”. We can and must be able to find more profound emotions in our selves- deeper than bad or good. We owe it to ourselves and to everyone around us. 

Imagine if we could all be more empathetic, understand your fellow human beings. It is a whole lot better than the alternative. Developing emplasticity is important and understanding the layers of empathy is a good first step.


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