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The Relationship Between Empathy and Self Control

I recently read an article by Ed Yong that suggests your ability to have empathy for someone else is produced in the same area of the brain as your ability to have self-control. As empathy allows a person to put their opinions and perspective aside and step into the shoes of another, Yong describes this as true for self-control. Think about cheating on a diet. You are eating mostly fruits, vegetables and proteins but you get the sudden urge for chocolate cake. When you have the self-control to resist the urge to order a slice of cake, you are taking a hit now so Future You can feel healthier. This is you having empathy for your Future Self.

Here are more examples that you may have experienced:

  • Present you not going out with friends for a night as a way to help your future bank account/savings. If you are trying to save up for a trip, to pay your rent, or to save up for your kid’s education, sometimes it becomes a challenge to take time for yourself. At that moment, saying “no” to a friends’ night out is a form of having empathy for your future self and your future financial goals.
  • Present you ordering a salad for dinner rather than ordering a pizza. This self-control could demonstrate an example of you looking out for your future self’s health goals. Maybe you are trying to lose weight, feel more comfortable in that bridesmaids dress or are trying to get your 5 vegetables a day. Although choosing pizza might be more pleasurable at the moment, this self-control is empathic towards your future health outcomes.
  • Present you taking the bus on a rainy day rather than calling an Uber/Lyft. This self-control to take the cheaper, and less convenient means of transportation shows empathy towards your future bank account and financial goals. Those 3x surge charge rates are not worth it- especially if that means you have limited money to buy groceries later in the week.

This article helped me reframe these situations that happen on a regular basis. Self-control around food is the most challenging for me but using this article as a frame of reference has allowed me to have more empathy and understanding for my decision making. I have found that this self-control is dependent on the significance I place on the desired outcome. If I am saving up for something, it is easier for me to resist the urge to grab a cab when it is raining, or cook at home rather than going out, because I know exactly what the money is going towards. The same might go for those who have goals around exercise and food. Identifying that you want to fit back into those pair of jeans, or the goal to look a certain way for spring break, might trigger more self-control, as the future goal is more desired. This self-control, even though it may not be as desirable in the present moment, allows you to be empathic towards your future perspective, and weigh your decision with your future goals in mind.

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