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Empathy: Learning to Relate -- Human Style

Building Blocks

Empathy is the ability to project one's own intellect and feelings into another person's life, situation, or experience in order to understand that person better. If one possesses empathy, he or she has greater means by which to assess, comprehend, sympathize, and react to others.

An infant expresses empathy before he or she has any notion of self. Empathy is primary to development and helps infants develop trust of their caretakers. Behaviorists explain that caretakers mimic an infant's smiles, pouts, and gurgles. This provides infants with a mirrored image of their feelings and sets up a connection in their brains of visual signs that help them learn to read moods.

Empathy, Studying the Female Response

Empathy is one of those nature and nurture issues. Female developmental theorists claim that girls develop relationally, whereas boys develop more in the direction of autonomy and independence. The reason, some say, has to do with same-sex identification.

Now don't get up in arms and argue that we have gone way beyond teaching girls just to be girls. You are out of touch these days if you don't believe in gender differences. What has changed is that the negative assessment of what is female has been thrown out the window. Now that I have clarified this, you can proceed without resistance.

Daughters, unlike sons, do not repress or hide characteristics they see in their mothers, and readily accept and display empathy and tenderness. These two emotions can provide another meaningful connection for mother and daughter.

Relationships with a Female Point of View

Research at the Stone Center for Women's Research at Wellesley College found that women are more relational by nature and incur greater stress than men when they feel isolated. Hence, women are more likely to maintain social relationships. Furthermore, they seek out relationships for support and comfort. The hormone oxytocin might be the key, thinks Pennsylvania State University researcher Laura Cousino. It seems that under stress women produce more of this hormone, which is thought to be a mood regulator. Consequently during periods of stress they prefer patterns of befriending and talking. Engaging in being close to others has an anti-anxiety affect and calms women down. To achieve this, women…

  • Nurture and talk with their children.
  • Talk with friends and family members.
  • Engage in basic interaction with others, even strangers.

Although past theorists viewed relationality a female weakness and male autonomy a show of strength, that view no longer holds true.

A Plus for Female Sociability

Dr. Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., a mind and body psychologist and biologist educated at Harvard Medical School, believes that women's social connectedness keeps them healthier than men and confers longevity. This is particularly true, she notes, in widowhood where men do not fair as well as women. The proof, she thinks, is reflected in males' higher rate of mortality after becoming widowed.

Prepped for Meaningful Adult Relationships

Contemporary researchers claim that women's relationships are founded on creativity, compassion, autonomy, and wisdom. Women, it seems, are prepped for meaningful connections and relationships—that could include your mother or your daughter.

Women see themselves as part of the world around them, not separate from it. Their primary experience of self is relational. That self is organized and developed within the context of important relationships. This phenomenon is called "self-in-relation" and pertains to the way women see themselves in the context of other people and their environment. Key to this concept is the belief that women are interdependent and that relationships provide a valuable context within which to grow and become empowered.

It is precisely this concept-that women become greater through relationships-that encompasses the "very soul of the feminine world view," says Borysenko.


Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Mothers and Daughters © 2001 by Rosanne Rosen. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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