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Personal development blogs 2011

Developing Empathy: Walk a mile in someone’s shoes

Empathy… before you criticize this person. The following article has a lot to share about compassion, empathy and in general the ability to think yourself into another person’s shoes, if you so want. It will also show you what you can do to develop and cultivate empathy. The origin of the famous proverb “before you criticize a man, walk a mile in his shoes” was quite difficult to find, as there are many who simply rephrased and added their own “spin” to this commonly known quote. Many of those modern quotations added the sentence “… That way, you are a mile away from them and have their shoes”, which naturally adds a funny spin to the quote, but it (unfortunately) has nothing in common with the original thoughts behind the fantastic proverb.

The earliest traces of the enlightening part of the proverb date back to the Cherokee tribe of Native Americans, who said “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes”. Nelle Harper Lee, an American authoress, was seemingly inspired by the saying of the Amerindians in her book “To Kill a Mockingbird”, where she wrote

“You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1960

and thereby brought the saying to a wider public and increased its popularity distinctly.

Definition – What is empathy all about?

Being able to empathize means to be capable of identifying and understanding another person’s feelings, without experiencing them for yourself at that particular moment. It is – just as previously discussed – the ability to literally experience the world from another person’s perspective; to walk in their shoes, to view life from their living conditions and to feel what it feels like to be that person.

The noun em•pa•thy refers to

  • the ability to comprehend another person’s actions and emotions
  • the identification of thoughts and emotional states within others
  • the capacity to understand a persons (emotional) reaction
  • the awareness of another’s problems, without experiencing them

which can be – in general – understood as the ability of a person to understand others or to “see where they are coming from”. In contrast to this, the personality trait of a person that is incapable of empathizing with others would be defined as a sociopath.

Surprisingly, the ability to empathize with others is relative to a person’s capacity to identify, feel and understand his own feelings and thereby being able to project one’s feelings onto others. This means in turn that it becomes complicated at times to understand what a person is undergoing, if you haven’t undergone it for yourself – or at least felt similar feelings. The outcome of this can be seen in our day-to-day lives; it’s relatively easy to laugh about someone who is not as tall as you, or to rant about “the lazy unemployed” when you have never been unemployed in your life, or grown up in riches. But once you experience for yourself what it feels like to be teased about your body height or the difficulty to find a job, your point of view might change drastically and also how you feel about those who are facing a similar situation.



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