Can empathy be learned in adulthood? (A complete guide)

In this article, we will answer the question Can empathy be learned in adulthood?. We will do that by defining empaths, empathy, its benefits, and components. We will describe what empathy looks like and how children learn it. We will then describe how adults can learn empathy and what makes this process easier or difficult. 

Can empathy be learned in adulthood? 

Yes. Empathy can be learned in adulthood. Although children make ideal candidates for learning empathy, yet it is possible to learn empathy after we grow up. Research has shown that formal training can improve empathy levels. We can use various methods to do so. This can include reading fiction & watching movies from the character’s perspective, learning body language, learning connections & patterns, and finally learning empathy through role-playing are a few ways adults can learn empathy. 

Empaths

Empaths are people who are usually known as highly sensitive people. They have an innate ability to identify another person’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions. In other words, they can view the world from their perspective and comprehend their emotional experience. These people are highly intuitive and detect connections among emotions, thoughts, and situations. This helps them predict what a person is feeling and responding accordingly. 

What does Empathy look like?

Empathy involves the art of saying the right thing in the right way. Most empathic people are gifted with this ability. Let’s consider the following example, 

Person A says: ‘I feel so sad after our breakup. I feel like my life is not the same without him’

Person B (Empath) responds: ‘I can see that you are going through a difficult time. I am guessing you are experiencing a sense of loss’. 

In the above example, person B, the empath, is able to guess the feelings of person A based on what she said is happening to her after her breakup. Here, we see that choosing the right words and guessing the emotions of person A, are both important. For a person, to be empathic, he/she should not be able to not only sense the emotions but also communicate them for empathy to be truly effective. Doing so, facilitates and shapes the upcoming dialogue and makes people feel understood in an empath’s presence. 

Empathy, its components, and benefits

If we describe empathy, it would be fair to say that it is an interpersonal skill that is a part of our emotional intelligence. It is the ability to understand the emotions and feelings of other people and see the world from their perspective. 

According to Carl Rogers, empathy is an essential skill that enhances the relationship quality of people. It is the pre-requisite for an effective therapist since it is the key to establishing a good relationship with their clients. It also helps the clients adhere to treatment and promotes healthier outcomes. 

Looking at this, we understand the importance of empathy in our lives. Empathy basically involves 3 aspects, understanding, feeling, and responding to emotion, cognition, and behavior. A person must learn all these aspects in order to be empathic. 

Learning Empathy in Childhood

Usually, some people are genetically predisposed to being empathic whereas others are not e.g. People with narcissistic or antisocial personality disorder have empathy impairments.

Learning empathy is a natural process. When we are young,  children think from an idiosyncratic perspective.  In other words,  they think that other people see the world as they do.  After age 3,  they gradually start to shift their perspective and try to see the world from another person’s view.

 Children learn to be empathic by observing other people around them. If they have good models of empathy, they learn the skill of empathy quite easily. Furthermore, if the adult model actually teaches them and guides them, then their learning can progress at an even faster rate. 

For children, parents can learn to process their own emotions first and then also teach their children how to do that. They can strengthen their ability to identify connections between certain events and the emotional outcome. They can even ask questions like ‘How are you feeling? ‘What are you thinking?’ ‘What are you feeling in your body?’ etc.

So, we can say that children are perfect candidates for learning empathy. 

Learning Empathy-Adulthood

An important question arises ‘Can empathy can be learned in adulthood?’

A lot of people would like to benefit from learning empathy or improve their already existing levels. Priori studies how that formal training can improve cognitive, emotional, and behavioral empathy. So, it is possible that adults can learn empathy as well.

 Adults can improve their empathy by engaging informal training.  They can try by identifying facial expressions and body language associated with particular emotions and certain situations.   They can try to imagine themselves in another person’s situations and think about possible emotions they may be feeling.  To see whether they are correct,  they can ask another person for feedback. 

Prior studies have shown that reading novels can improve levels of empathy.  This is because fiction allows us to experience the lives of characters and understand their emotions,  thoughts, and motives behind their actions.  This understanding of characters can be applied to other people in our daily life.  Reading books can also improve reduce our biases about other cultures and make us more acceptable and tolerant of differences.

A similar approach can be applied when people watch TV series or movies.  Such experiences can enable them to empathize with the character.  It can also help us to understand our own experience,  especially when a movie hits a personal cord.  

How to Teach Empathy in Adulthood

In order to teach empathy,  we need to understand that empathy has four elements.  First, we need to teach about the benefits of showing empathy.  This can follow up by teaching how to identify the emotions of others and how to feel those emotions.  Finally, we need to teach how to respond to the emotions of other people.  

We can use different models for this purpose.  You can ask a friend,  a family member, or a relative to act as your model.  This can follow up by playing out a scenario where one person says something,  and the other has to respond appropriately using empathy.  The instructor can comment on it and make corrections where required.

 After this, another step should be to practice showing empathy to others.  This can be done by being empathetic to people in our daily life in real situations.  Furthermore,  we can also practice being empathetic with the instructor by responding spontaneously to written or audio comments of a person.

 Constructive feedback can be quite helpful in improving the levels of empathy.  It can include encouragement and correction when a person effectively assesses another person’s emotions and responds appropriately.

What makes learning empathy easy or difficult

We learn the value of empathy when we are empathized with. If we feel the positive emotions that empathy usually induces in others, we are more likely to be motivated to be empathic as well.  

However, whether someone actually learns empathy or not depends upon multiple factors.  These can include 

  • Lack of motivation
  • Finding it difficult to understand the feelings of other people
  • Having that makes learning empathy a challenge e.g. autism, psychopathy, narcissistic personality disorder, etc.

FAQs: Can empathy be learned in adulthood?

Can empathy be learned?

Yes. Empathy can be learned. It is a skill that develops over time. It can particularly develop if we learn how to actively listen to others. Some people learn it early in life. Whereas, others learn it later on. 

Is empathy developed or learned?

Empathy is learned even though it is also innate. We can say that it is an inborn capacity that develops over time as we grow. 

At what age empathy fully develops?

Cognitive empathy which is the ability to understand another person’s perspective usually completely develops by age 13 in girls. For boys, this can extend up to age 15. 

How can you tell if someone lacks empathy?

We can learn whether someone lacks empathy if they show shallow emotions or are always happy. This is because people who do not have emotional empathy will not be in touch with their emotions. So, they will try to act out emotions instead of feeling them.

Conclusion

In this article, we discussed Can empathy be learned in adulthood?. We found that Empathy can be learned in adulthood. Although children make ideal candidates for learning empathy, yet it is possible to learn empathy after we grow up. Research has shown that formal training can improve empathy levels. We can use various methods to do so. This can include reading fiction & watching movies from the character’s perspective, learning body language, learning connections & patterns, and finally learning empathy through role-playing are a few ways adults can learn empathy.

 I hope you found this article interesting. If you have any queries or comments, please state them in the comment section 😊

Citations

https://theconversation.com/children-learn-empathy-growing-up-but-can-we-train-adults-to-have-more-of-it-68153#:~:text=Adults%20can%20increase%20their%20empathy,say%20and%20their%20apparent%20situation.

https://www.wikihow.com/Teach-Empathy-to-Adults

Armah is a mental health professional in training. She has done her Bachelors and Masters in Clinical Psychology with specialization in Cognitive Behavior Therapy. Her goal is to make a difference in the field of mental health be it by spreading awareness through writing or through clinical practice. In her free time, she likes to read, keep up to date about new trends in Psychology, bake and watch Netflix 😊

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