What is Empathy?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Empathy is commonly practiced in alcohol recovery groups.
Empathy is commonly practiced in alcohol recovery groups.

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.

Empathy can be important in therapy or counseling sessions.
Empathy can be important in therapy or counseling sessions.

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.

It is common to feel empathy for characters in a sad movie, offering catharsis for the viewer.
It is common to feel empathy for characters in a sad movie, offering catharsis for the viewer.

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.

People who lack empathy often keep others at a distance.
People who lack empathy often keep others at a distance.

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.

Empathy implies feeling with a person rather than feeling sorry for a person.
Empathy implies feeling with a person rather than feeling sorry for a person.

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.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent InfoBloom contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent InfoBloom contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

anon303713

My boyfriend is going through a lot right now. He has to have a serious surgical procedure, his mom is to be placed in hospice and he has had a whole lot he's wanted to do, but can't because of these "bumps in the road."

He can put off one trip for this, but he has planned to see his mom for Christmas. I do know how he feels. I've had plenty of "bumps" in my life since I've been seeing him and he's always been there for me. I want to be there for him and want him to feel how I feel for his current situation, but all that hears from me and says he feels are only words.

I know how he feels, but don't know really how to express it without sounding unfeeling.

anon272793

Is this really important?

anon117810

"no you don't" is a response that will more often than not, be communicated. Having true empathy is more than just expressing with mere words.

anon91721

i get angry whenever someone says 'i know just how you feel.' i think the normal response to this is "No you don't!"

anon53633

I agree with breadcrumbs51. If someone says "I know how you feel" to a person, and they really don't know how that person feels, then that's just kumquats.

anon15064

Are alcoholics and/or children of alcoholics generally less likely to show empathy and compassion for others?

breadcrumbs51

People who have not gone through a specific situation need to be careful about trying to express empathy when they should be expressing sympathy. Saying "I know just how you feel," is often taken the wrong way, especially if the recipient knows that you DON'T know at all how he or she feels. Sometimes it's better to stick to listening.

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    • Empathy is commonly practiced in alcohol recovery groups.
      By: kmiragaya
      Empathy is commonly practiced in alcohol recovery groups.
    • Empathy can be important in therapy or counseling sessions.
      By: pressmaster
      Empathy can be important in therapy or counseling sessions.
    • It is common to feel empathy for characters in a sad movie, offering catharsis for the viewer.
      By: djma
      It is common to feel empathy for characters in a sad movie, offering catharsis for the viewer.
    • People who lack empathy often keep others at a distance.
      By: JackF
      People who lack empathy often keep others at a distance.
    • Empathy implies feeling with a person rather than feeling sorry for a person.
      By: doble.d
      Empathy implies feeling with a person rather than feeling sorry for a person.
    • Group therapy is often effective because people with specific conditions have empathy for each other.
      By: WavebreakmediaMicro
      Group therapy is often effective because people with specific conditions have empathy for each other.