Empathy – nature and nurture


Empathy – the origin of as related to nature and nurture.

Quick summary: Empathy comes from nature and from nurture… from perceived positive and negative experiences. Empathy is something which is advantageous to the social human animal… there are many ways of augmenting this ability.


Certain people are innately more empathetic than other people are.

  • Personalities are influenced by both our biology (nature) and what we have learned (nurture).
  • The ability to nurture or to be helpful or compassionate to someone who needs assistance is directly related to a person’s empathic ability.
    • Parents will often ‘feel’ the feelings of their offspring and will then react accordingly – ex. “the baby is irritated I will remove him from this loud setting.”


Others learn to be more empathetic through ‘negative’ or ‘difficult’ life experiences. 

  • Often children growing up in families which are unpredictable, dangerous, abusive or in which there is substance abuse have an increased empathic ability.
    • It is adaptive for a child to learn how to “pick up” the emotions of an unsafe adult so that they can react accordingly.
      • example – a child will automatically feel if dad is ‘mean drunk’ or ‘safe drunk’ and will automatically react with the most appropriate emotion or the emotion that is most likely to get his/her needs and safety concerns met.


  • People who are socially oppressed can develop an increased ability to be aware of their environment and will at times be more empathic then people who are more privileged.
    • As with automatic behaviors (reacting without wasting the time to think), automatic emotions can influence a person physiology to be more adaptive to potential threats in their environment.


Empathic ability can be learned in many ‘positive’ ways as well.

  • By being cared for you learn to care.
  • Seeing the compassion expressed by others resonates with us as social creatures.
  • Most spiritual, meditative, and religious organization have the base goal of increasing one’s empathic ability (golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do un to you).
    • My version – “do unto others as you have empathically discerned to be in the best interest of that other person.” – Will
    • “perhaps the first step to reducing unnecessary suffering is to develop the ability to know when you are creating suffering” – Will

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.
William Hambleton Bishop
William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

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