Empathy: the Difficult, Rewarding Work of Putting Ourselves in Other People's Shoes

Empathy: the Difficult, Rewarding Work of Putting Ourselves in Other People's Shoes
María Vélez

Written and verified by the psychologist María Vélez.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

We’re connected to our inner selves, but also to the outside world, and empathy plays an important role in both connections. And with all the advances in technology, the outside world we’re able to interact with gets bigger every day.

As the world gets bigger and we get more and more means of communication — but with less information — empathy becomes more difficult.

For example, think about how complicated it can be to be empathetic when you’re communicating via text. Or how easy it can be to be empathetic towards someone you’re talking to face-to-face.

What is Empathy? What Does “Putting Ourselves in Other People’s Shoes” Mean?

We can define empathy as the ability to understand the emotional (feelings and emotions) and cognitive (thoughts and ideas) state of other people or ourselves. And this understanding is a result of putting ourselves in the other people’s shoes.

It’s not a simple exercise. In order to really do it, we’ll need to put aside the stereotypes or heuristics that are so ingrained in our mind. 

On top of this, it’s hard because the other person’s world, or even our own, is complicated. It takes a lot of attention.

a pinky swear

The truth is that there are people and circumstances where it’s easier to be empathetic. For example, it will be easier for us to be empathetic towards people who are similar to us or if they ask for our help.

In the first case putting ourselves in other people’s shoes is easier because they’re like our own shoes, and in the second case it’s because we’ll have motivation to do it, if we feel their request is sincere.

Enemies of Empathy

Human beings are partly a product of the situations we go through, from the day we’re born right up to now. Indifference has many causes, some of those being:

  • Self-centeredness.
  • Distrust.
  • Loss of values.
  • Personal drive to climb high, at any cost.
  • Racial, educational, and socioeconomic differences.
Survival of the fittest keeps us from understanding other people’s needs, whether it’s our spouse, family member, neighbor, coworker, or friend. Every day, psychologists see thousands of cases that could be improved by simple, active listening: empathy. 

What Can Empathy Do For Us and Everyone Around Us?

Let’s try to answer this question by going through a few different situations:

  • Our relationships will work better if we occasionally practice putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. That way we’ll understand the other person’s need for affection and where their feelings are coming from. Accepting the effects of past experiences (both positive and negative) will help your relationship thrive, not just survive.
  • Say an employee sees an area where the business needs to improve, and her boss provides what she needs to do it. The employee-employer relationship will be in harmony.
  • Being empathetic makes us more sensitive and respectful of other people’s limits. For example, with empathy we’ll be able to understand how frustrated parents of children with autism might feel when they they can’t communicate.
  • And why should we be empathetic towards ourselves? Honestly examining our strengths and weaknesses will remind us who we are, and at the same time make it easier to distinguish our identity from others.

Empathy and Children

  • teacher will see her influence grow if she’s empathetic with her students. For example, empathy will give her eyes to see that the abusive, violent boy is just copying the behavior he sees at home. Understanding the shyness, hyperactivity, extroversion, and sadness of her students will make her job easier and more valuable.

two trees putting ourselves in other people's shoes
  • If parents remembered they were children and teenagers once too, they would have more understanding and the generational gap wouldn’t be so wide. In the end, being parents doesn’t erase all past memories.
  • Facilitating empathy in children and teenagers, appealing to their emotions, is an excellent way to prevent undesirable behavior like bullying or doing nothing when witness it. For example, the KiVa method, used in Norway, is directed at bystanders of abuse by inspiring empathy for the victim.

As we’ve seen, putting ourselves in other people’s shoes improves relationships, tightens bonds, and bring hearts together. It’s also very helpful for preventing an all-too-common modern woe: emptiness and loneliness.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.