jump to navigation

Personal growth: Is empathy intuitive or learned? April 20, 2014

Posted by Dennis Mellersh in Concept of personal development, Concept of personal growth.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

For a program of personal growth and development to be complete, experts tell us that it is important for us to work on fostering the moral attribute or virtue of empathy within ourselves

Within the concept of personal development or self-improvement we could define empathy as being the ability to recognize, understand, and appreciate the feelings or emotions being experienced by another person, or any living entity that has feelings and emotions.

This Personal Development Potential post presents some ideas, or factors to consider, concerning the quality of empathy, rather than trying to provide definitive scientific answers on this abstract human ability.

A key question is whether we possess the attribute of empathy intuitively, or do we need to undergo a variety of circumstances, experiences, and /or education in order to have this capability.

Questions relating to non-intuitive empathy:

These questions involve the paradigm of personal experience as opposed to non-personal experience.

A few possibilities or examples:

(1) Do we have to have gone through a period of poverty in our own lives to appreciate the pain of people who are poor?
(2) Do we have to have or have had some personal mental or physical limitation in order to sympathize with a person who is mentally or physically challenged?
(3) Do we need to have lost a loved one in order to have empathy with someone who has suffered a personal loss?
(4) Do we have to have failed with an important financial project in order to empathize with a friend who has gone bankrupt?

Alternatively, can experience with opposites create empathy?

Turning around the above questions 1-4 we can ask:

(1) Can being financially secure help us to appreciate or understand the difficulties and emotions induced by poverty?
(2) Can being perfectly healthy mentally and physically help us to empathize better with people who are not?
(3) Can never having experienced grief help us to appreciate someone else’s loss?
(4) Can being highly successful in our lives help us to have empathy for the person who has failed with their major life-projects?

Such questions unfortunately, are just that – they are not answers.

But hopefully, sympathetic feelings and human decency are inherent or intuitive, and this, combined with our work on self-improvement, will imbue us with the character attribute of genuine empathy.

Appreciation and understanding through opposites

There is an interesting viewpoint on the generative quality of opposites expressed in the Tao Te Ching, as translated by David Hinton:

All beneath heaven know beauty is beauty
only because there’s ugliness,
and knows good is good,
because there’s evil.

Being and Absence give birth to one another,
difficult and easy complete one another,
long and short measure one another,
music and noise harmonize one another,
before and after follow one another. (1)

1) The Four Chinese Classics: Tao Te Ching, Chuang Tzu, Analects, Mencius, Translated by David Hinton, Counterpoint Press, Berkeley, California, 2013

(Hinton provides an excellent overview of these classics, which helps in understanding the thought process of each of these Chinese ancient sages.

Further reading:

There is an extensive scholarly article on empathy on the Wikipedia website at the following URL:



No comments yet — be the first.

Comments are welcome, but comments containing swear-words (profanity) will not be approved

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: