Empathy is a feeling different from sympathy. When one is sympathetic, one implies pity but maintains distance from another person’s feelings. Empathy is more a sense that one can truly understand or imagine the depth of another person’s feelings. It implies feeling with a person, rather than feeling sorry for a person.
Empathy is a translation of the German term Einfühlung, meaning to feel as one with. It implies sharing the load, or “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes,” in order to appropriately understand that person’s perspective.
In therapy, for example, being sympathetic with a patient implies a distance and a failure to understand the patient’s viewpoint. On the other hand, the therapist who displays empathy is attempting to further his or her understanding from the perspective of the patient. This implies closeness rather than distance as it makes little distinction between the person suffering and the person attempting to understand the suffering. However, the therapist must also protect him or herself from becoming entangled in the emotional state of the client. Some distance needs to be maintained even when empathy is practiced.
Group therapy often works because those with a specific issue, such as alcoholism, are able to show empathy to each other. Each person who is an alcoholic finds it easier to understand others who struggle with alcoholism.
Alternately, a group dedicated to providing support to people that have lost a child relies on the empathy of the members. Each person has something in common with the other group members. They can all deeply understand the monumental importance and tragedy of losing a child in a way that cannot be understood by a person who has not lost a child.
Often people who have suffered a loss or experienced a tragedy find themselves put off by sympathy. Sympathy often emphasizes that the grieving person is alone. Even when kindly meant, sympathy is often rejected. Grieving people don’t necessarily want pity, but instead want understanding. Finding friends who can offer empathy helps to restore perspective in a world that has been torn by tragedy. It emphasizes that one is not alone, and shares his or her intense feelings with other people.
For those who truly wish to help a grieving person, empathy is not always possible. Most people cannot even begin to be “as one with” a person who has been raped, abused, or who has suffered the death of a loved one. However, in attempting to express empathy, one needs to think carefully. “What would this really be like?” Sometimes the only appropriate response is to say to a person: “I can only imagine how difficult this must be for you.” In this way, we come closest to empathy.
In literature, catharsis for the reader is often achieved through empathy with a character. In fact, often literature, and other artistic mediums like film can be helpful psychologically. When a character is drawn well and one relates to the character's thoughts or experiences, the resolutions made by the character can forward the reader or viewer into new ways of thinking about one’s own situations. In this way the reader or viewer’s own empathy may provoke catharsis.