To talk about empathy and our ability to grow in empathy we have to first define it. Empathy is NOT sympathy, kindness, compassion or the like. Empathy is a neutral skill that can be used for good or bad or both. Heinz Kohut (the father of one of the major contemporary fields of psychoanalysis called, Self Psychology) put it simply when he said:
In other words, it's the ability to put yourself in an other's shoes and non-judgmentally take their perspective. When you do this, you see the world through their eyes, through their story, through their joys and their pains. Brene Brown expands on this for us in the video below.
Where Does Empathy Come From?
It's a good question, where does empathy come from? Because it leads us to the cause of empathy, which will lead us to knowing if empathy is teachable or not.
Over 40 years of infant research has taught us that empathy (the capacity to take accurately someone else's perspective over your own) develops as we are tuned into and as we have our needs accurately understood and responded to. This is especially critical and shaping before age two because our needs are largely unspoken (and even un-thought in the way we think of thinking as adults), instead they are acted out, like a real life game of charades. Only most babies don't start off by letting us know what category we're working with. As we grow, if empathy is good enough (a key term here which means that it happens enough of the time for the child to develop a sense of trust in the other person and in their own self) then our sense of self grows (sense of self meaning: our continual feeling real and alive, our self esteem, our ability to regulate our own emotions and self soothe, our ability to feel assertive, and our ability to deal with inner tension, etc.). It's important to stress that perfection is not the goal, in fact perfection would be harmful. Perfectly meeting every demand of an infant or child will not allow them to have the moments of disappointment needed for growing out of their selfishness. We're all born with a healthy and appropriate sense of selfishness, it's what we need to grow in the beginning. However, relationships and life are impossible to have if we never grow out of total selfishness and into a more whole self that can love others too. So, as we go along our caretakers meet our needs and fail our needs. And the hope is, as they fail our needs they do not regard our upset-ness at being let down as a threat to them (causing them to get angry back at us or take off on us emotionally or physically) but rather they are able to remain steady and kind in the midst of our attack on them for letting us down. These important early experiences of love are what we need to grow in our eventually capacity for empathy.
So, this leads us back to the question of if empathy is teachable. I believe the answer is, yes. Of course the amount a person is able to grow is determined by how much empathy they had early on, how much junk they've had to deal with in their own life, how old they are now and how much love they are able to find now.
The funny thing about growing someone in empathy is this, typically the age that a person was when they shut down a part of their personality for lack of being emphatically responded to (i.e. the age they were when they started to continuously experience their parents not wanting or being able to understand a particular need of theirs) is the age they act when they begin to feel someone interested in loving that need in them again. This means, for a while, at first, a person is going to be selfish in that part of their personality as they are related to in ways that they longed for when they were young. So, it takes someone dedicated to loving selflessly for a while in order for a person to grow in the capacity to love back in a satisfying way (this is not easy and requires a lot of empathic skill in the person or people doing the loving and a great deal of support elsewhere for them as they're trying to love so that they themselves don't get burned out).
Of course we don't live in a perfect world where other adults can love us selflessly for extended periods of time, so this becomes a long process full of many surrogates of love, starts and stops, hurts and baby steps and even missteps. So if you love someone who seems unable to be fully alive or take genuine interest in others know that there is hope. How much hope is determined by their story, their genetics and how much love they can find now.