The Path of Empathy

By: Serly Abnosmasihi

Empathy is not exactly a quality that most people are aware they possess. Some people, if not most, are not aware of whether they tend to be empathetic towards others or not. Before we cover the details, we must first acknowledge the two extremes of the spectrum. One with absolutely no empathetic capabilities is called a sociopath. Sociopaths are not individuals who are cold and detached by choice, but rather by default. The other extreme of the spectrum is an Empath. An Empath is someone who is highly sensitive in everything concerning emotions.

With that preface considered, we can discuss the childhood matters. What would one consider to be a rough upbringing? Which hardships need to be detected in order to be able to diagnose a person’s childhood as “rough”? A rough upbringing will involve factors in one’s childhood that would raise questions about whether it was to be considered “ideal”. There is no question that a “perfect” childhood does not exist. Realistically speaking, one could never be so censored from the difficult aspects of life that they could consider the first 18 years of their life to be “perfect”. A second reason as to why it would not be possible is merely that “perfection” is very subjective. What one might consider perfect, another will consider miserable.

An “ideal” upbringing, however, refers to one which lacks a certain set of situations: a death in the immediate family, ongoing abuse (sexual, verbal or physical), substance abuse of any kind, severe or ongoing trauma, a divorce of parents at a young age, severe abandonment or neglect. With some exceptions, If ones childhood consisted of any of the mentioned qualities, it would typically be considered “rough”.

Empathy is the capability to share and understand another’s feelings. For example, you witness someone having a difficult time dealing with weight. Understanding the situation isn’t the complicated part, it’s understanding enough to share some of the difficult emotions. Now if you, yourself have experience issues with weight, you may or may not have an easier time relating to this Individual.

This pertains to the question at hand; Does having a “rough” upbringing predispose someone to be more or less empathetic? In other words, does having a rough upbringing help people understand other people’s hardships or does it cause them to be cold and detached from others? These individuals may even be going through the same hardships but would they naturally react empathetically or not?

To find the answer, I conducted a psychological research that consisted of two groups. Group A had 5 males and 5 females who had a “rough” upbringing. Group B had 5 males and 5 females who had an “ideal” one. I distributed to them the same survey that was meant to measure their levels of empathy.

The survey consisted of 9 questions (5 multiple choice and 4 open answer). If one answered more than half of the questions empathetically, they were declared empathetic, in the terms of the research.

The results of the research indicated that Group A was most empathetic. This means that having a rough upbringing may have played a part in why group A answered the survey questions empathetically. The mindset is along the lines of “I’ve seen and experienced things, therefore I can empathize with others who go through hardships.”

There are many factors to be analyzed and explored here. One very large factor is that all omf the subjects were coincidentally Armenian. This conclusion that people with rough upbringings tend to be more empathetic could be strictly dependent on the fact that they were all Armenian. Having considered the variable of race, there’s many more aspect to the analysis; One of which are family roles. A few of the subjects happened to be siblings which provided an opportunity to analyze the different results of people with different roles in the same family. For example, an older sibling in the family who endured a lot of trauma due to parental substance abuse happened to be a lot more empathetic than a his/her younger sibling who wasn’t as exposed to substance abuse related trauma but was sexually abused as a young teen. It would be possible that in the absence of proper parental involvement, the older sibling adopted a certain caregiving and parent-like role for the younger sibling, forcing them to develop more empathetic traits.

Another very important variable to consider is gender. Out of all 20 subjects who responded to the survey, 4 people were declared  unempathetic; ¾ of them were male. A possible explanation to this might be that men tend to be denied emotional expression at a young age. Society may inflict specific gender roles that restrict being emotional therefor, making it difficult for some men to access, understand or share emotions.

Group A consisted of a lot of people who had experienced severe trauma as children. 3 of them had actually witnessed a family member or friend die in front of them. One would assume that this experience would cause them to become cold and detached but quite the opposite was evident. All 3 of these people scored highly in empathy. Conceding that research is limited, people who experienced a rough upbringing displayed higher levels of empathy.