What Is Empathy?

Empathy has many different definitions, but it is generally understood to refer to one person’s vicariously experiencing the feelings, perceptions and thoughts of another. It is the ability to enter into and understand the world of another person and to communicate this understanding to him or her (Egan, 1986, p. 95).

Empathy is a translation of the German term EnƒühƖung, which literally means “feeling into” (as in projecting oneself into the thinking, feeling and acting of another). To empathize is to share in the experience of another. It implies sharing the load, or “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes,” in order to understand the other person’s perspective.

Empathy is a feeling different from sympathyOpens in new window.

  • Empathy is when you know and embrace the depths of the other person’s feelings, and, journey through the other person's situation with him or her.
  • On the other hand, sympathy  Opens in new window is when you feel pity but maintain a distance from the other person’s feelings (later in this entry, much of this distinction will be examined closely).

Empathy is when you can truly understand or imagine the depth of the other person’s feelings. It implies feeling with a person, rather than feeling sorry for a person. You put yourself in the other person’s shoes and imagine what he is feeling.

In so doing, you are more sensitive to the other person’s needs. Simon Baron-Cohen, puts it so well,

Empathy involves a leap of imagination into someone else’s head. While you can try to figure out another person’s thoughts and feelings by reading their face, their voice and their posture, ultimately their internal world is not transparent, and in order to climb inside someone’s head one must imagine what is like to be them (2003: 24).

In order ‘to sense the other person’s private world as if it were your own’ it is necessary to meet it on its own terms. Marie McCarthy throws more light:

In empathic engagement I project myself into the object of contemplation in order to understand him or her. The projection involved here is not merely that of seeing my own preconceptions, of seeing what I expected to see. It is a projection in which I come to see what’s really there ‘by getting into it’ ... In projecting myself into the other’s world, I take that world seriously, on its own terms.

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Carl Rogers, backs this up

... to enter the private world of the client means that for the time being, you lay aside your own views and values.

This engagement with the inner world on its own terms requires from the empathizer the discipline of ‘bracketing’. She ‘brackets out’ her own biases and preconceptions and thus give herself the best chance to see experiences as the other person sees it.

Of course, it is not in fact possible to set aside your own values and perspectives completely. These, to some extent, will always find some ways to intrude. The discipline of bracketing serves to minimize this intrusion.

Empathy is often said to be a source of knowledge about the mental state or activities of the person empathized with.

Distinction Between Empathy and Sympathy

Much has been made of the distinction between empathy and sympathy, but the two terms are often used interchangeably.

When a distinction is made, empathy is often defined as understanding another person’s experience by imagining oneself in that other person’s situation: One understands the other person’s experience as if it were being experienced by the self, but without the self actually experiencing it. A distinction is maintained between self and other.

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Sympathy, in contrast, involves the experience of being moved by, or responding in tune with, another person. When you sympathize, you feel sorry for the other person yet there is no urge, no impelling reason to be one with his feelings. You merely understand where he is coming from, and are more considerate of him and his situation. Another common distinction is to use sympathy when referring specifically to the emotional side of empathyOpens in new window.

Empathy is important for our society and in building social relationships because it helps us establish our connections with others. It also facilitates our interactions with the other people around us. This is the foundation for building a thriving and supportive community.

In fact, some early European and American psychological and philosophical thinkers such as Scheller and McDougall viewed empathy as the basis of all positive social relationships.