Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is good, but not when it becomes the default mode of relating to others. Too much empathy can blind you to your own needs.
Empathy is having its moment. The ability to feel what another person is feeling, from that person’s perspective, generates lots of press as the ultimate positive value and the pathway to a kinder, less violent world. Schools across the country are teaching empathy to children, and myriad books explore it from every possible angle: how to get it, why it makes you a better person, how its absence can breed evil.
Empathy is exalted by thinkers from Zen Buddhist monk Thích Nhâ’t Hąnh to British writer Roman Krznaric, who just launched an online Empathy Museum where you can virtually step into someone else’s shoes. Established scientists like primatologist Frans de Waal and developmental psychiatrist Daniel Siegel explore the deep roots of empathy in animals and its essential nature in humans.
Even the business world exalts empathy as a way to ensure the success of companies and their products, with design firm IDEO leading the charge. We are exhorted to examine our empathic capacity and instructed how to develop it in ourselves and in our children.
By Robin Stern Ph.D., Diane Divecha Ph.D.,