Empathy – Essential and Endangered

One of the big discoveries on my personal growth journey has been that the more I get to really know myself, the more I have expanded my awareness of others. I often find myself wondering what others have experienced in their lives that impacts how they show up for themselves and their relationships. My deep dive into the enneagram has given me a greater perspective into the diversity of core needs we all have and the many ways we go about getting those needs met. Replacing frustrations or judgments about others with curiosity and an intention to truly understand them has enriched my relationships and fostered a deeper compassion for others.

Recently I’ve been reading Dr. Bruce Perry’s book, Born for Love, which he published in 2010. He was sounding the alarm for the “empathy poverty” that has become pervasive in our society. He and Maia Szalavitz co-authered the book, sharing detailed stories of children and adolescents whose childhood experiences impacted their quality of life, and contributed to dysfunctional emotional and mental health issues. Over and over in each of these insightful and heartwrenching stories, we learn the incredible value of empathy as the foundational glue for healthy, happy and meaningful relationships.

What struck me was that our collective empathy poverty has only gotten much worse over the last decade. What gives me hope is the growing number of people recognizing a need for change — in their own lives and also in the lives of others. The global pandemic, political divisiveness, racial and gender inequalities, climate changes– they’ve all served as wake up calls. This book — Born for Love — should be a primer for anyone who wants to expand their knowledge on the root causes of so many of the issues facing humanity today.

Transgenerational patterns keep us tethered to the past and often resistant to embracing necessary changes. Lack of knowledge about infant brain development, especially in the first few months, prevent us from educating new parents about the importance of a calm, loving and nurturing environment. Programs, education and tools are needed for infants and their families who are in high risk situations for abuse and neglect to protect and ensure healthy brain development. This is vital to developing resilience and healthy emotional and behavioral regulation in the future.

We chastise young children for misbehaving without the base knowledge of their inability to do so because their cortex isn’t fully developed – and won’t be til their late 20’s. We expect kids to sit still and pay attention without an awareness that the tapping of their foot or the juggling of their pencil is a stress regulator — and a parachute to keep their little brains engaged and open to learning. We send juveniles to jail and wonder why they don’t learn their lesson. No time is spent on understanding their personal life history, providing them with stability and relational support for meaningful rehabilitation. Instead, we often put them with hardened criminals where they learn to double down on already problematic behaviors.

We have the power to change long-standing systematic and transgenerational problems. But first we must understand the root causes and then develop programs and tools to break the cycle. Each and everyone of us can contribute to this process. Empathy is the driver for long overdue changes.

Empathy underlies virtually everything that makes society work—like trust, altruism, collaboration, love, charity. Failure to empathize is a key part of most social problems—crime, violence, war, racism, child abuse, and inequity, to name just a few.” 
― Bruce D. Perry, Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential–and Endangered

As I mentioned earlier, my self discovery and personal reflection work has made me keenly aware of how my own past experiences pre-disposed me to behave in certain ways when I was feeling misunderstood, disrespected or ignored. This self awareness work actually opened up a deeper compassion in me. In mindfulness practices, this is often referred to as “other” centered. While I’d like to believe that I was usually an empathic person by nature, there is no doubt that facing my own childhood experiences had a transformational influence on how I viewed others. Instead of focusing on their behaviors, patterns and projections, I found myself wanting to know what happened to them. What was the root cause that eroded trust, self-worth, self-confidence and resilience?

In some cases, I had a good working knowledge of the hardships, adversities or abandonment that had happened to people I love. My blind spots were just how these difficulties played out in their own behavioral patterns and armor to protect themselves from having a repeat experience. This is where the enneagram became such an invaluable resource. It was a big aha moment for me to realize that often it was fear or insecurity driving another’s anger, blaming or denial. It shifted everything about how I wanted to respond.

And how I wanted to respond was with patience, attentive listening, non-judgment and calmness.

My own “improved” self-awareness enabled me to see that others were simply operating on autopilot too — and using old behaviors to survive, navigate or soothe. My compassion for what they were truly feeling began to grow. My empathy deepened, knowing what it feels like to often make things worse by throwing up a smoke screen rather than getting to the heart of the matter.

This change in “responding differently” to others diffused all that emotional investment that often happens in relationships and especially in conflict. We are prone to take things too personally. If we just take a moment to pause and center ourselves, we can turn our full attention to the the other person and really listen. Being calm, giving eye contact, and holding space are incredible tools for letting someone know that we are paying attention and we care. When we are able to refrain from getting caught up in all that super-charged energy, waiting to pounce with a defensive response, the dynamic shifts. There is room for empathy to join in. Empathy can bring clarity to a situation.

I think we have all had the experience of passing judgment on someone and then quickly observing details that paint an entirely different picture than our initial reaction. We feel embarrassed for jumping to a snarky conclusion and we feel a warm wash of empathy come over us as we take in the new information, and change our perspective.

This is the power of empathy — it opens us up to receive new information, and invites us to change our minds. In fact, if we want to proactively cultivate empathy, we need to stretch out of our comfort zones, examine our biases, and move beyond our own worldview. Trade judgment for curiosity — ask good, meaningful open-ended questions and keep asking to gain even more clarity and perspective. Have difficult, respectful conversations. Read books – both fiction and non-fiction will expand creativity and spark greater curiosity. (I do hope I have inspired you to read Born For Love. )

We get opportunities each and every day to practice cultivating empathy. The more we do it, the easier it becomes. We can all contribute to helping empathy get off the “endangered” list. We are born for love and connection. Our children are counting on us and what we do today will shape their tomorrows.

“Will increasing empathy solve all the world’s problems? Of course not. But few of them can be solved without it.”  — Born for Love by Dr. Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz


Please take the less than 3 minutes to listen to Dr. Perry succinctly summarize the importance of undoing our relational and empathy impoverishment. Dr. Bruce Perry – Born for Love: Why empathy is essential and endangered: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rmn8uvSyJSo

Check out this recent Typology Podcast with Former Governor of Tennessee, Bill Haslam. His insights dovetail with the content of this blog post in a meaningful way.

This week, Former Governor of Tennessee, Bill Haslam returns to the show. This time we talk about his new book, The Promise and the Peril of Faith in the Public Square, turning his attention inward to matters of the soul since his term ended, and what he’s learning about himself as an Enneagram 3. Bill Haslam is the former two-term mayor of Knoxville, Tennessee, and former two-term governor of Tennessee, reelected in 2014 with the largest victory margin of any gubernatorial election in Tennessee history. During his tenure, Tennessee became the fastest improving state in the country in K-12 education and the first state to provide free community college or technical school for all of its citizens, in addition to adding 475,000 net new jobs. Haslam serves on the boards of Teach for America and Young Life. In the fall of 2019, Haslam became a visiting professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. He and his wife of thirty-eight years, Crissy, have three children and nine grandchildren.

GREATER GOOD SCIENCE CENTER For a More Empathetic World, People Have to Choose Empathy https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/for_a_more_empathic_world_people_have_to_choose_empathy

Roots of Empathy Organization – Building Caring, Peaceful and Civil Societies. https://us.rootsofempathy.org

Roots of Empathy develops empathy in children today so that they can build the world that they deserve. This organization has reached over one million children globally with school based programs, and they have research to prove impact. Roots of Empathy reduces aggression, increases sharing, caring and inclusion and promotes resilience, well-being and positive mental health.