The topic of empathy comes up quite a bit in my counseling work. Which makes a lot of sense. If we want to better understand our partners, connect deeper with others, or even have compassion for ourselves, expanding our practice of empathy is vital.
Empathy means putting yourself in someone else's shoes. It's about recognizing that we are all vulnerable and that we all are so much alike as humans. I think there's an important distinction between sympathy, which can have a condescending feel, and empathy, which is literally feeling like another (as much as possible). They often both involve compassion, but empathy is on an equal footing, and sympathy can be hierarchical. Although we might have different innate abilities around empathy, it is something that can be taught and learned.
A university in the Midwest recently chose six students to participate in a non-credit project called the Empathy Experiment. Research has shown a dramatic decrease in empathy in college students, particularly in the past 10 years. In an attempt to build greater understanding of the working poor, the students were progressively exposed to more challenging circumstances, including a night without eating and spending a night in a homeless shelter. It seems that the goal of students' challenging assumptions and better understanding the perspective of others was realized. To read more about this, visit the Empathy Experiment.