To put it simply, gatekeeping is an act when someone takes it upon themselves to decide who does or does not have access or rights to a community or identity ("You can't be a real Phoebe Bridgers fan, you just discovered her. Real fans follow her since at least Stranger in the Alps.") If this sounds ridiculous to you, don't worry. You're not alone.
There's a subreddit called r/GatesOpenComeOnIn and it describes itself as the polar opposite of gatekeeping. Created in 2018, this online community collects and shares pictures of wholesome acts of kindness when people had each other's backs. Whether it's encouraging everyone to share their Spotify Wrapped or simply allowing someone to feel tired, it doesn't take much to acknowledge another person's emotions, thoughts, experiences, values, and beliefs. Continue scrolling and check out how it's done.
As you can see from the pictures, empathy goes a long way. Developing it is crucial for establishing relationships and behaving compassionately. Since empathy involves experiencing another person’s point of view, rather than just one’s own, it enables prosocial or helping behaviors that come from within, rather than being forced.
Sadly, some surveys indicate that empathy is on the decline in the United States and elsewhere. But at least these findings motivate parents, schools, and communities to support programs that help people of all ages enhance and maintain their ability to walk in each other’s shoes.
Empathy really is a superpower: it helps us cooperate with others, build friendships, make moral decisions, and intervene when we see others being bullied.
Humans usually begin to show signs of empathy in infancy and the trait develops steadily through childhood and adolescence.
That being said, most people are likely to feel greater empathy for someone like themselves and may feel less empathy for those outside their family, community, ethnicity, or race.
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Like other traits, empathy may have evolved with a selfish motive: using others as a "social antenna" to help detect danger. From an evolutionary point of view, creating a mental model of another person's intent is critical: the arrival of an interloper, for example, could be deadly, so developing sensitivity to the signals of others could be life-saving.
Babies display an understanding that people’s actions are guided by intentions and can act on that understanding before they turn 18 months old, including trying to comfort a parent. Advanced reasoning about other people’s thoughts develops around age 5-6.
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Experts say that people high in narcissism, or who have a narcissistic personality disorder, can exhibit empathy and even compassion. However, that ability only goes so far, as ultimately they prioritize their own needs.
Some researchers believe narcissists can become more empathetic by developing greater self-compassion, which can increase their own feelings of security and self-worth and enable them to open up to hearing others.
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"Do a thought experiment," Mark Davis, a professor of psychology who has spent decades studying empathy, said. “Imagine if humans didn’t have the capacity for empathy. What would it mean if, in fact, we never gave a damn about what happened to other people? That’s an almost an inconceivable world."
"As awful a species as we can be — and we certainly have the capacity for terrible things — we’re also capable of some pretty wonderful things, noble things, self-sacrifice."
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Interestingly, the word "empathy" is relatively new. It didn’t enter the English language until the early 1900s, derived from the German word einfühlung, according to Daniel Batson, a researcher of empathy and professor emeritus at Kansas University.
While some people are more naturally empathetic than others, there are easy, evidenced-based exercises that anyone can do to increase their empathy.
First, talk to new people. Trying to imagine how someone else feels is often not enough. Luckily, the solution is simple: ask them. "For me, the core of empathy is curiosity," Jodi Halpern, a psychiatrist and bioethics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies empathy, told The New York Times. "It's what is another person’s life actually like in its particulars?”
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You can start conversations with strangers or invite a colleague or neighbor you don't know well to lunch. But the trick is to go beyond small talk – ask them how they're doing and what their daily life is like.
Put away your phone and other screens when you’re having conversations, even with the people you see every day, so you can fully listen and notice their facial expressions and gestures.
Also, follow people on social media with different backgrounds than you have (different race, religion, or political persuasion).
But don’t just stand in someone else's shoes, as the saying goes—take a walk in them. For example, consider attending someone else's church, mosque, synagogue, or other houses of worship for a few weeks while they attend yours, or visit a village in a developing country and volunteer.
If you don't have enough time for these activities, you can simply explore a new neighborhood, or strike up a conversation with a homeless person in your community.
If someone’s behavior is bothering you, think about why. Consider what it’s like to live their daily life.
Remember, you don't need to understand everything about someone to make them feel respected. Just don’t make assumptions about people based on what your life is like. The people on this list certainly haven't.
We’re all humans, and we all have a desire to connect with one another. Building our empathy, considering the perspectives of others, and opening ourselves to uncomfortable conversations can make that happen.