Ever wonder why some people just seem to “get” you? They can sense your mood, relate to your struggles, and offer a listening ear.
I was recently chatting with a friend who has this incredible knack for empathy, and it got me wondering — where does deep empathy come from?
As we talked about our own experiences growing up, I began to see some common threads.
It turns out, people with a strong sense of empathy often have certain childhood experiences that shape them.
Want to know what they are? Here are 7 childhood experiences often shared by deeply empathetic individuals.
1) An open family environment
The first piece of the puzzle often starts at home, within the family. In my conversation with my empathetic friend, one thing that stood out was the openness in her family.
She described her home as a safe space where feelings and ideas could flow freely. It wasn’t about being right or wrong; it was about being heard.
In such families, the dinner table isn’t just for eating; it’s a forum for discussion and emotional expression. Kids learn early on that their thoughts and feelings have value.
They are encouraged to share their day, express their opinions, and even discuss their fears.
My friend recalled how, as a child, her parents would always ask, “How did that make you feel?” after any significant event, teaching her to always tune in to her emotional landscape.
Of course, that is not to say people without this privilege don’t become empathetic — I know many individuals who learned from the mistakes and shortcomings of their distant family members.
However, the experience of being acknowledged often sets the groundwork for empathy. Because you’re listened to, you learn how to listen. Because you’re understood, you understand the value of understanding others.
2) Exposure to diversity
Another cornerstone in my friend’s empathetic upbringing was her exposure to a diverse range of people and perspectives.
She wasn’t just surrounded by folks who looked like her or lived the same way she did.
Whether it was through neighbors, family friends, travel, or cultural events, she learned early on that the world was full of people who had their own unique stories.
She shared an unforgettable experience of attending a 3-day cultural festival with her family when she was just nine years old. There, she was exposed to different customs, traditions, and even cuisines.
The event was like a kaleidoscope of humanity, opening her young eyes to the richness of different cultures.
And the beauty of it was, she didn’t just observe from a distance; her parents encouraged her to engage. She danced, tasted new foods, and even participated in a storytelling circle.
It was through these firsthand experiences that she learned to appreciate and value differences, rather than fear them.
3) Experiencing hardship
We mentioned above that a loving family environment can nurture empathy — but sometimes it’s the opposite experience that fuels it.
My friend was lucky to not have gone through anything deeply traumatic, but she did have her fair share of hardships both with her health and in her relationships. These weren’t just obstacles; they were crucial chapters in her story of developing empathy.
She opened up about a time in her life when she felt alone and misunderstood, grappling with challenges that made her question her own self-worth.
Yet, it was during these testing times that she learned to wear the shoes she now uses to walk beside others. Because she had felt pain, she could understand the pain in others, even if the experiences weren’t identical.
What’s truly inspiring is that her hardship didn’t make her bitter; it made her better. She made the conscious decision to not let the hurt she felt turn her into a hardened individual.
Instead, she chose to become a more caring and loving person, contrary to those who had treated her poorly.
In a way, her difficult experiences rounded out the empathy born from her family’s open environment.
She developed a fuller understanding that people are products of both their joys and their sorrows. And through that understanding, she’s been able to relate to others with a depth of compassion that only comes from having been on both sides of the coin.
4) Caring for pets
Another unique chapter in my friend’s journey to empathy came from an unexpected source: pets.
As a child, she had a dog named Leo, a tail-wagging bundle of joy who became her closest companion. From feeding to walking to simply spending time together, she learned to care for another being in a deeply personal way.
Leo became more than just a pet; he was a family member, a confidant, and a friend who offered unconditional love.
My friend often reminisces about the silent conversations she’d have with Leo, feeling as though he could sense her moods and offer comfort without a single word.
This relationship taught her early on about emotional intelligence and responsibility. It wasn’t just about making sure Leo had food and water; it was about reading his behavior, understanding his needs, and recognizing that he too had feelings.
Pets, in their simple yet profound ways, teach us to look beyond ourselves. My friend’s bond with Leo enriched her empathy by making her aware, perhaps for the first time, that every creature has its own set of feelings, needs, and fears.
And that to care for another life, whether human or animal, is to broaden your own emotional landscape.
5) Involvement in team activities
Teamwork isn’t just about winning games or achieving goals; it’s a crash course in understanding people. My friend, who was always a people person, learned this lesson early on.
She wasn’t the star of her school’s soccer team, but she was undoubtedly its heart. Always the one to cheer on her teammates, she showed them support whether they scored a goal or missed a crucial shot.
This experience provided her with a microcosm of society, each team member with their own skills, struggles, and backstory.
She understood that behind every pass and every play were hours of practice, moments of self-doubt, and a personal life that could either uplift or weigh down a player.
She took this understanding and applied it beyond the field. She began to see that in every group setting — whether in class, at work, or in social gatherings — everyone has a role, a contribution to make, and also a hidden battle they might be fighting.
She became attuned to these nuances, approaching people with a kindness that only comes from acknowledging their full human experience.
6) Friendship with someone from a different background
Friendship has a magical way of broadening our perspectives, but perhaps nothing accomplishes this more than a friendship that crosses cultural or social boundaries.
In art class, my friend happened to sit next to another girl from a different ethnic and religious background. What unfolded was a friendship that enriched both their lives in countless ways.
This friendship became a gateway to learning about different customs, traditions, and viewpoints.
Of course, they enjoyed each other’s company, but they also dove deep into conversations that opened each other’s eyes — about religion, politics, and culture.
Because of her friendship with Sarah, my friend began to see the world through a different lens. She gained a firsthand understanding that her own way of life was just one among many, and that different doesn’t mean wrong.
They shared holidays together, exchanged family recipes, and supported each other through their individual ups and downs — understanding that what’s not a big deal to one might be extremely difficult for the other.
The lessons my friend learned from this friendship are ones that she carries with her, influencing how she interacts with every new person she meets.
7) Participation in volunteering
There’s something transformative about giving your time to make someone else’s life better. My friend discovered this when she started volunteering at a local food bank during her high school years.
She donned her apron and gloves, ready to sort canned goods and pack meals. What she didn’t anticipate was how this experience would pack her heart with compassion and empathy.
As she interacted with people coming in for food assistance, she saw firsthand the challenges they faced.
These were not nameless, faceless statistics of poverty; they were individuals with stories, families, and dreams, not unlike her own.
She met single mothers juggling multiple jobs, seniors on fixed incomes, and young kids who looked forward to the food bank as if it were a treat.
What struck her most was the gratitude. People thanked her for her time, for treating them with dignity, for smiling as she handed them a bag of groceries.
Volunteering changed her. She became deeply attuned to the struggles of others and more appreciative of her own blessings. It instilled in her a lifelong commitment to service, not as a resume builder, but as a heart builder.
Unlock the power of empathy
Empathy is a gift, often nurtured through specific experiences in our formative years.
Whether it’s a loving family, friendships across cultures, or hands-on community service, these experiences shape us into compassionate beings.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t choose to consciously deepen your empathy at any point later in life.
It’s a lifelong journey — and one that will leave an amazing positive impact on the world around you.