Empathy: what characterizes the people who have it?

Empathy is an art, an exceptional ability genetically programmed in our brain with which to tune into the feelings and intentions of others. However, and here comes the problem, not everyone can “turn on” this flashlight that illuminates the process of building the relationship more solid and enriching.

Something that we hear frequently is that “such person does not have empathy,” “that another is selfish and completely lacks it.” Well, something that is important to clarify from the beginning is that our brain has a very fine-tuned architecture through which to favor that “connection.” Empathy, after all, is one more strategy with which to mediate the survival of our species: it allows us to understand the person in front of us. It makes it easier for us to establish a deep relationship with them.

We have two ears and one mouth to hear twice as much as we speak


That brain structure where neuroscience has placed our empathy is in the right supramarginal gyrus,  a point located right between the parietal, temporal, and frontal lobes.

 Thanks to these neurons’ activity, we can separate our emotional world and our cognition to be more receptive at a given moment towards those of others. 

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With this data clarified, the next question would be, then if we all have this brain structure, why are there more or less empathic people and even those who have a total and absolute absence of it? We know, for example, that antisocial personality disorder has its main characteristic, a lack of emotional connection with others.  However, leaving aside the clinical or psychopathological aspect, many people do not develop this ability.

Early experiences, educational models, or even the social context, makes this wonderful faculty weaken in favor of a very marked social egocentricity. So much so that as a study carried out at the University of Michigan reveals, today’s university students are up to 40% less empathetic than students of the 80s and 90s.

Today’s life already has so many stimuli and so many distractions for many young and not so young that we are no longer fully aware of the present moment and even the person before us. Some are more attuned to their electronic devices than others’ feelings, which is a problem we should reflect on.

To delve a little deeper into the subject, we propose below to know what traits define people who have authentic, useful, and essential self-esteem to establish healthy relationships and adequate social development.

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Useful empathy Vs projected empathy

A basic aspect that should be clarified from the beginning is what we understand by useful empathy. Although it may surprise us, simply “having empathy” is not enough to build solid relationships or show emotional effectiveness in our daily interactions.

“The most precious gift we can give to others is our presence. When our mindfulness embraces those we love, they bloom like flowers.”

-Thich Nhat Hanh-

To understand it, we will give you a simple example. Maria has just come home tired, exhausted, and upset. You just argued with your parents. When Roberto, her partner,  sees her, he immediately reads her expression and tone of voice; something is not right; he interprets her emotional discomfort. Instead of generating an appropriate response or behavior, he chooses to apply the projected empathy, that is to say, it amplifies that negativity even more with phrases such as “you are coming back angry, it’s that you take things awfully, the same thing always happens to you, look what your face is …”.

There is no doubt that many people are skilled at emotionally and cognitively empathizing with others (they feel and understand what is happening), however instead of mediating channeling and proper management of that discomfort, they intensify it.

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Therefore, the person skilled in empathy is the one capable of putting himself in the shoes of others, knowing at all times how to accompany this process without damaging and without acting as a mirror where the pain is amplified. Because sometimes it is not enough to understand, you have to know how to ACT.

Authentic empathy puts judgment aside

Our judgments dilute our capacity for genuine rapprochement with others. They place us on one side, on one side of the glass, in a very reduced perspective: ours. It should also be said that it is not exactly easy to listen to someone without making internal judgments, without putting a label, without evaluating that person as skillful, clumsy, strong, clueless, mature, or immature.

We all do it to a greater or lesser degree; however, if we were able to shed that suit, we would see people in a more authentic way, we would empathize much better, and we would more accurately capture the emotion of the other.

It is something that we should practice on a daily basis. A skill that according to several studies tends to arrive as we get older, since empathy, as well as the ability to listen without judging, is more common as we accumulate experiences.

People with empathy have a good emotional conscience

Empathy is an indispensable part of Emotional Intelligence. We know that this approach, this science or very successful area of ​​psychology and personal growth is fashionable, but … Have we really learned to be good managers of our emotional world?

  • The truth is that not much. At present, we continue to see many people who handle terms such as self-regulation, resilience, proactivity, assertiveness … However, they lack a true emotional inventory and continue to be carried away by anger, rage, or frustration as a 4-year-old would.
  • On the other hand, others think that being “empathic” is synonymous with suffering, as an emotional contagion where they feel what another feels to experience the same pain of others as a kind of mimicry of discomfort.

It is not the right thing to do. We must understand that healthy, useful, and constructive empathy comes from that person who is capable of managing their own emotions, who has strong self-esteem, who knows how to set limits and who, in turn, is skilled at emotional and cognitive accompaniment. To others.

Empathy and social commitment

Neuroscience and modern psychology define empathy as the social glue that holds people together and that in turn, generates a real and strong commitment between us.

“If you don’t have empathy and effective personal relationships, no matter how smart you are, you’re not going to get very far.”

-Daniel Goleman-

As curious as it may seem, in the animal kingdom, the concept of empathy is very present for a very specific reason that we pointed out at the beginning: the species’ survival. Something like this causes many animals and diverse species to show cooperative behaviors where the classic idea of ​​the “survival of the fittest” remains behind. An example of this can be seen in certain whales capable of attacking orcas to defend seals.

However, among us in many cases, the reverse effect predominates, namely, the need to impose ourselves on each other, to look for enemies, to raise borders, to create walls, to make people invisible, or even to attack the weakest just for being weak or be different (think of bullying cases).

That, then, is authentic empathy: putting ourselves in the place of the other to facilitate a harmonious coexistence. Let’s work on it every day.



  1. -Luis Moya (2013) “Empathy, understand it to understand others” . A Coruña: Current Platform

    -Frans de Waal (2009) “The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society”  New York: Three Rivers Press

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