empathyUpon leaving high school, I was five foot eight inches and 180 pounds.  People never described me as fat, but as large-boned or sturdy. 

However, I was not happy with the way I looked and, really to me, it did not seem as if I devoured that much food. 

I did have an intense sweet tooth.  So, unfortunately, I was often tempted by that extra slice of chocolate pie, chocolate chip cookies in the cookie jar, and any form of chocolate—with or without nuts. 

My freshman year in college, I became very ill with a virulent flu.  In the process of getting sick, staying sick much longer than anticipated, and getting well—I lost about twenty pounds. 

I liked being thinner—so I stayed on a diet— one that consisted almost exclusively of soup and lost another thirty pounds.  I liked that even better.  And, best of all I managed to keep it off—and went back to regular eating, but keeping an eye on the scale.

Mistake #1: Too fat

Several years later, I was back in that same small college town walking down a busy shopping boulevard, but this time I was working on a master’s degree.  In this one window of a popular clothing store was this fabulous pleated skirt. 

I remember standing in front of that window and wishing, wishing so much that I could go in and purchase that amazing skirt—but I couldn’t. I couldn’t for after all, I was too fat. 

It had been six years since I lost weight and yet my internal image of my physical being was at least six/seven years old. Hold it a minute, I thought. Of course, I could buy that skirt. 

In I went

I kept picking skirts that were two large, before the clerk exasperatedly said, “Here, this one will fit.”  And, it was slightly big, but the smallest they had.  I bought it—and the matching sweater—and it became my “go to” outfit whenever I wanted to be satisfied with how I would look. 

I loved that outfit I wish it were still in my closet. But I so nearly didn’t buy it—because I thought I was still too fat. My self-perception was off.

Wrong perceptions

Just recently, I read an article in the New York Daily Times based on an interesting experiment devised by Dove and assisted by expert forensic artist, Gil Zamora.  I was fascinated and impressed by the results.  Here’s what happened:

Seven women, hidden by a screen, were interviewed by Gil.  Each woman was asked to describe her features as specifically as possible. Words used included—square jaw, kind eyes, etc.  Then another female who had briefly met the woman was asked to come in and describe the “stranger.”   

Mistake #2: Too plain

The final sketches included significant differences that were more positive, more open, kinder-looking, or more attractive as stated by the stranger than the original sketches drawn as a result of the individuals describing their own features.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XpaOjMXyJGk?rel=0&w=560&h=315]


After reading the article and viewing the video—I recalled the incident of my perception of my own body image described above. These women and I shared a common experience – our self-perception was different to that others held of us. And, we were judging ourselves much more harshly.

Blurry vision

Our internal vision of ourselves—physically and emotionally—is often blurred. We don’t see ourselves accurately. We clearly underestimate ourselves as the above examples have shown, and I believe we can overestimate ourselves, too.

I was reminded of a recent Internet article reporting that in the U.S., narcissism  (concern for self) is increasing, and empathy (concern and action for others) is decreasing.  This data makes me wonder if the feedback reported by Dove about physical beauty, and how the individual essentially downplays her looks, would be reversed for the reporting of “inner beauty.” 

Imagine another experiment

For example, the experiment would be to describe yourself emotionally to a stranger.  You would focus on two items.  One would be emotional concern for yourself; and the second would be concern for others. 

Then have a friend or perhaps a co-worker, not a stranger, describe you to that same stranger on those two topics as well.  Then see which paragraphs contain the most positive words—such as kind, thoughtful, generous, patient, collaborative, etc.

Mistake #3: Too good?

My hunch is that the individual is going to report herself in a more positive light than the friend is.  Hmmm?  Perhaps I will try this with my graduate psychology class next week.  Any bets on the outcome?  I will let you know.

Committed to empathy

I do know that I am committed to the spreading of empathy.  My definition of empathy requires some action when adversity strikes a friend.  It might be a hug for a stubbed toe, a glass of milk and a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie after a tough math test, or a joint sharing of tears if someone has significantly hurt feelings. 

But we also need to experience empathy for ourselves, to befriend ourselves—heal our hurts, update our images, judge ourselves not too harshly. And maybe we need to work on that first, before we can truly empathize with others.


I think a gigantic dose of empathy for ourselves and for others would improve many things—friendship, marriage, sibling relationships, student-teacher relationships, etc.  Therefore, at Six Seconds one of our major competencies in our EQ model is the increasing of empathy.  We recognize that it arrives with most of us, but needs tending in order to bloom and thrive. 

For example, my niece at one and one-half years would pat me on the back, if she saw me crying—even at a commercial.  She didn’t understand the subtleties, but recognized the pain.  She wanted to help. Today, at eighteen she is immensely empathic.  She will volunteer to help even when her time is limited.

I have a favorite YouTube clip, which illustrates this principle beautifully.  A robot is looking for something to play with and finds a small robotic dog.  The dog is not working—but the robot figures out a way to make the toy work.  Watch the clip and decide on your next act of kindness.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0lynZYyshg?rel=0&w=420&h=315]


If you can’t see it above, here is the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0lynZYyshg

Dev Patnaik, strategy consultant, argues in his 2009 book, Wired to Care, that a major flaw in contemporary business practice is a lack of empathy inside large corporations.  Instead, the inventing of better mousetraps requires a much stronger sense of empathy for the client than currently exists. 

I would make the same argument for teachers.  If we are going to build lessons, assessments, etc. for the teacher’s client—the students–we need much more empathy for their states of mind.  I love this quote by Scott Adams, who said,

“Remember there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.

May we continue to spread these small ripples even when we know it will cost us something.

Do you have experience of these mistakes? Are you underestimating or overestimating yourself? And what do you think the outcome of the experiment I propose above, might be? Please tell us in the comments. I truly appreciate heart-felt and thoughtful comments, they make my day.

Or ‘like’ the Six Seconds Facebook page for more valuable information about emotional intelligence. I would so appreciate it! Thank you.

The 7th International NexusEQ Conference is taking place at HARVARD UNIVERSITY in Boston, June 24-26, 2013. There isn’t a lot of time left! Join me, and luminaries such as Peter Salovey, Marco Iacoboni and Herbert Benson, for a ground-breaking three days. You can read more details about it here. :-)

Anabel Jensen

President of Six Seconds and professor of education, Anabel Jensen, Ph.D., is a master teacher and a pioneer in emotional intelligence education. A two-time Federal Blue Ribbon winner for excellence in education, she was Executive Director of the Nueva School from 1983 to 1997 where she helped develop the Self-Science curriculum featured in Daniel Goleman’s 1995 bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence.

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