BASIC NEEDS series / Emotional Evolution & Spiritual Growth / Relationships / We Are Connected

BASIC NEEDS: Empathy (We’re All Connected or Have We Forgotten?)


This is the 3rd in a series of postings sharing my thoughts and experiences on the topic of basic needs of humans and the feelings we have when those needs are and are not being met. The opening post in the series is “BASIC NEEDS Being Met? Feelings are the Signal”  You may want to give it a read before proceeding. Think of it like a brochure for the journey you’re about to embark on! And thanks for joining me… I always appreciate and enjoy traveling with friends.


We're all connected or have we forgotten?

We’re all connected or have we forgotten?

It seems a natural segue from APPRECIATION to EMPATHY in the discussion of HUMAN NEEDS and what feelings are triggered when those needs are and are not being met. Basic human needs are more like a web of interdependencies rather than stand-alone entities, but even in that web, there are some associations closer than others.

In last week’s discussion about appreciation (see my post called,”BASIC NEEDS: Appreciation (Use It or Lose It)“], empathy showed its face. And how could it not? Empathy is that valuable quality that allows us to imagine what it might be like to live in someone else’s shoes. This can be a key element on the path towards appreciating other people in our lives. Personally, I’m rather drawn to empathetic souls and leery of those who are not. Empathetic people tend to be more mindful of their words and actions around others. Usually, and I’m speaking from first-hand knowledge, empathetic folks are also sensitive folks. The sensitivity that allows them to feel empathy for others is the same sensitivity that causes them to be easily hurt by others’ words and actions.

To be on the receiving end of empathy is a good place to be. If you have your wires connected properly in your head, chances are you will feel moved and thankful that someone is relating to you and feeling compassionate about your struggles, perhaps when many others aren’t. If there were a temperature setting for empathy, I’m quite sure it would be WARM.

On the flip side, lack of empathy for others turns us into terrible people. The soul lacking empathy is the teenager who tortures animals, the kid or adult who bullies other kids or adults, the person who barks commands at other people and humiliates them in public, the person who rules a nation or a loved one by fear. They are the judgmental loudmouths, the self-proclaimed authorities on everything, the person with a smirk permanently chiseled into his or her grin. When we lack empathy, the people who must deal with us feel disappointed by us, distressed by the cool, callous way we might treat them and untrusting of our intentions–as well they should be, because we seem mean spirited and tend to let them down a lot. An empathy-deficient person might have suffered a terrible childhood or a terrible adult relationship where empathy was not shown. They may, therefore, either intentionally or unintentionally withhold empathy from others. Another possibility is the empathy-deficient person might be the person who grew up with too much entitlement and simply does not and cannot comprehend what it means to deal with disappointment, misfortune, or significant challenge. That lack of comprehension can be coupled with intolerance for others, or a holier-than-thou, above-it-all attitude.

Perhaps a more unsettling way a person without empathy can trigger negative feelings in others is by sensing another’s propensity for empathy and taking advantage of it. The most obvious example in my lifetime has usually been among women I know who have partnered with a man who may not appear so but is extremely needy–unable or unwilling to stand on his own. Very often in these cases the man in question sought someone highly empathetic to either take care of him (in the best case) or to be the recipient of his unhealthy need to control his partner (in the worst case). A form of manipulation can occur via inconsistencies when in these cases men like this react in extremes to the empathetic souls’ caretaking, either by praising the caretaker partner when the man needs to keep her on the hook or by withholding praise when the man needs to establish power and control. These types of relationships concern me because there is an underlying cruelty in its foundation.

Empathetic souls can have a tendency to place too much of a priority on what other people feel and need, ultimately caring for others more than they care for their own selves. And when the day comes when the person you’ve been caring for no longer requires your services, you can find yourself alone, your life long gone–dedicated to someone who no longer or never did care. Sadness and disappointment can fill your heart and confusion can twist your gut as your empathy allows you to validate the other person’s negative behavior. You can find yourself battling with the need to remain empathetic and the need to accept that your empathy has led you to a dead end. And how could that happen to someone with so noble an effort–so valiant an intention?

I realize I’m only scratching the surface here of potential issues relating to empathy. So many examples with so many people come to mind. I thought somehow I’d be able to come up with a list of things to do to avoid great downfall in this area, but I might have to rest knowing I’ve made an attempt pointing out what it looks like when something’s gone wrong in our relationships with each other. The reality is at times each one of us has had to relearn lessons in empathy, an ability and inclination I believe we were naturally born with. As we form opinions into and during adulthood, we can tend to separate ourselves from others so much that we forget we are connected. But, when it comes down to it, we need to support each other in order for our species to survive. We need to evolve emotionally and empathy is key in making that happen. Let’s not forget that we are connected.

10 thoughts on “BASIC NEEDS: Empathy (We’re All Connected or Have We Forgotten?)

  1. I think empathy and compassion go hand-in-hand. Where we have a lack of one there is always a deficiency of the other.

    This is really well done. Like you I always seek those with empathy, both in the personal sense and the broad sense.

    • Thanks, Val, for taking the time to read my post, and for your kind pat on the back. I agree with your assessment about empathy and compassion. They are intimately related. To add to that, I think compassion is even more visceral… when we see someone suffering, we cry as deeply as they might; when they are in pain, we feel pain within our own body and the anguish that goes with it. Perhaps that is the additional component that can sink a caregiver into an emotional grave. Giving so much of themselves in the process, feeling the level of suffering themselves that it takes them down with the ship. I guess all emotions are what they are… necessary and yet dangerous if taken to extremes. We always have to keep an eye on what’s going on inside us, making sure we are listening to the signals our bodies are giving us.

      Thanks, by the way, for keeping tabs on both of my blogs… its helpful to let out a little steam every once in a while 🙂

  2. There should be a manual for empathic souls because you walk a fine line. You feel another’s pain and want to help. But sometimes helping them takes their lesson away from them. And they will have to learn it again, in another way.
    You feel their pain, yet sometimes have to give tough love, because that is truly the best way to support them. Being empathic, compassionate, doesn’t necessarily mean you have to give your all to someone. However, I do believe that kindness is important in everything you do and say.

    • Good point about the potential for empathetic souls to be enablers for people who really need to handle their own ‘stuff.’

      Just one more thought on your very last comment… if the empathetic person ends up in that situation where they are giving too much of themselves to someone who is just not stepping up, there’s a pretty good chance the enabler will ultimately feel resentment. That’s usually the flashing neon sign that something needs to change.

      Thanks so much for jumping in on the conversation! It’s an important topic that’s on my mind quite often. Empathy is one of those things we really need to keep tabs on.

  3. This is an excellent heartfelt post. I understand exactly your thoughts on empathy and know that it leads on in a positive way to kindness, care and compassion. It allows you to better understand someone’s fears and anxieties, feel their pain; and thereby one is able to offer them true comfort and support. .
    However, true empathy can also give you a better insight into less favourable people – and allows you to understand all sides of them – even the negative bits like manipulation, trickery and deceit.
    When I first read this, I resisted the temptation to apply empathy in that manner. However, now I do not think that there is anything wrong with it and in fact it strengthens one’s understanding and allows one to show compassion even to those people who may have wronged or hurt you and this is actually very empowering.

    • Thank you, Elizabeth, for a very thoughtful comment, and for your very kind compliment. I think I could write scores of posts on empathy alone. On the point that you’ve highlighted, empathy is the personal attribute that can feel most human and yet debilitating at times. It forever tests me to be a compassionate human being and yet honor a fine line where personal damage can be done. I’ve been tested in many ways, enough that it propels me to write often to continue working it out in my head.

      Again, thank you so much for reading, commenting and giving such thought to the topic.

      Be well,

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