Character Chats

What is Empathy?

What is empathy?

Here at True Balance Karate in Downers Grove, Illinois, we have a character program called True Character, and I am Master H, owner and chief instructor here at the studio.

I have 15 years of classroom education experience, two master’s degrees in education and together with my husband and our other staff members, we have written this curriculum to best meet the needs of all of our students as young as three and as old as 84.

And this month, we’re talking about empathy, basically putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, understanding how they are feeling.

Defining empathy

And we tell everybody this sentence and we make them repeat it is “I understand someone else’s feelings.”

When we talk about empathy, we make sure that they know empathy is not sympathy.

Sympathy is when you’re feeling sorry for someone. They lost their goldfish and you feel bad for them. They fell and scraped their knee and you feel bad for them. That is not empathy.

Empathy is not compassion. Compassion is when you see how they’re feeling and you want to do something to help them. That is not empathy.

Empathy is when you understand how they feel.

How do we teach empathy?

And here at the studio during different drills, we’ll have the kids show off a sad face and we’ll talk about how we know that’s a sad face. And they’ll say things like, oh, they’re frowning or oh, they’re crying or their chin is quivering. And we’ll talk about what that means.

We’ll ask them to give us our scary ninja eyes. And again, we’ll talk about what does that mean. We’ll do different drills where they have to show excitement and joy and happiness, or they have to show that they’re nervous or scared or things like that.

And when we have some new students in class, we will actually find other students and pair them up together.

And we’ll talk about how they’re in their first class. Can you help them out? Because you remember what that felt like.

So when they are able to tap into those empathetic feelings, they’re able to understand that we all feel similar feelings about situations. We all get scared. We all get sad. We all have happiness. We all get joy.

And so we’re always working on those empathetic feelings.

And even in the adult class, we’ll talk about that. We take a little bit more of a worldview on it.

As adults, we know that there are some people that do not understand or care how somebody else feels about something.

Understanding big emotions

And we’ll talk about what that means and what we can do to make our corner of the world a better place, what we can do to better understand where they might be coming from.

I see a life coach/nutritionist and she’s a pretty wonderful person. And one of the things that she and I were talking about just last week actually was how anger kind of masks other feelings.

So as we are working on our empathy skills, we want to make sure that we are putting in place the right label for that particular feeling. Not everything is angry. Sometimes it’s frustration. Sometimes it’s sadness. Sometimes it’s a feeling of being overwhelmed.

I remember when my kiddos were tiny. They’re not tiny anymore. They’re 14 and 17. But when they were tiny and they would throw temper tantrums and things like that, when it was done, we would talk about the big feelings that they were feeling.

Any parent will tell you, a temper tantrum, they just don’t know how to handle their feelings at that moment in time. And those are some pretty big feelings for kids to work through.

And the more we can guide them, the more we can show more patience, the more we can help them name their feelings and understand how other people feel as well, the more empathetic we can help our own kiddos become as they get older.

Making an impact

And you’ll see that in different drills that we do here at the studio. One of the drills that we do is called scared kangaroo, where the kids are jumping around in a square that we have on the mat and one of the instructors will bop them on the head with a pool needle and then they have to act all scared.

And all of the other kids that are jumping around need to also recognize when someone is no longer having fun being a kangaroo and then do something to recognize that feeling, be a little empathetic and do something to cheer them up.

So we work hard to incorporate these social, emotional learning words.

They’re big words, yes, but kids can understand them and adults can relate to them.

And the more we can talk about understanding other people’s feelings, the more of a positive impact we can have on the world around us.

Thanks and I’ll see you on the mat!


True Balance Karate was founded in 2012 by Master Sue and Paul Helsdon.

We offer kids karate lessons for pre-school children ages 3-6 and elementary age kids ages 7 and up. These lessons are designed to develop the critical building blocks kids need — specialized for their age group — for school excellence and later success in life.

Our adult martial arts training is a complete adult fitness and conditioning program for adults who want to lose weight, get (and stay) in shape, or learn self-defense in a supportive environment.

Instructors can answer questions or be contacted 24 hours of the day, 7 days a week at 630-663-2000. You can also contact us here