Empathy: Meaning And Importance (Now Understand It Easily)

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We know empathy as our ability to feel the emotions of another person. But it is also an ability to imagine what the other person might be thinking or feeling. And it is also an attitude. David Brooks calls it a “social emotion.”

Then, what is a good way to understand empathy without any of the technical jargon? It’s this post: Read on to understand easily (without any gobbledygook!) what empathy means and why is it important.

Here’s the simplest way to explain empathy:

To have empathy is “to sense the hurt or the pleasure of another as he senses it.” Empathy is our ability to recognize and feel another’s emotions and understand their thoughts and views on a situation. It also enables us to use that insight to respond helpfully and support them through challenging times.

Empathy | Definition

Empathy is the ability to imagine and understand what someone else might be thinking or feeling. It is also an ability to experience another person’s emotion (painful or pleasant) as they feel it. According to Carl Rogers, to have empathy is “to sense the hurt or the pleasure of another as he senses it.”

  • Bruce D. Perry: “The essence of empathy is the ability to stand in another’s shoes, to feel what it’s like there. Your primary feelings are more related to the other person’s situation than your own.”
  • Carl Rogers: “Empathy is the listener’s effort to hear the other person deeply, accurately, and non-judgmentally.”
  • Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Empathy | What is the origin story of empathy?

1. Lexical Origin

(OK, excuse the “lexical”—we only wanted to rhyme it with biological! It means relating to vocabulary).

The idea of empathy has existed for centuries, but its entry as a word in English is relatively recent. As a term, empathy has its earliest origins in the Greek word “empatheia,” composed of “en” (in) and “pathos” (feeling), meaning passion.

The modern concept of empathy was first introduced by the mid-19th century estheticians (those philosopher guys who deal with the nature of beauty, in things like art). To explain the emotional “feeling in” with a work of art, they brought in the German word Einfühlung”.

Robert Vischer, a German philosopher, was the first to use the word “Einfühlung” in 1873. Later, another German philosopher Theodor Lipps, in his Aesthetik, expanded it to mean “feeling one’s way into the experience of another.” The English psychologist Edward Titchener coined the word “empathy” as we know it today, in 1909, as a translated version of the German word einfühlung.

So you see, as a word, empathy has a history of merely 140-150 years. In comparison, the word sympathy is an older word—it has existed for almost 300 years before the first written record of the word empathy.

2. Biological Origin

Scientists tell us there is evidence of genetic roots of empathy, meaning we inherit some of our empathy from our parents.

Empathy has roots in our evolutionary past. The survival of our species depends on helping each other through troubled times. Mutual aid reduces our sufferings. Without the vital ability to empathize, humans would have acted solely to dominate others and not have responded to their calls of distress.

According to the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC), a research institute that studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being:

Empathy probably evolved in the context of the parental care that characterizes all mammals. Signaling their state through smiling and crying, human infants urge their caregiver to take action… females who responded to their offspring’s needs out-reproduced those who were cold and distant,. This may explain gender differences in human empathy.

Frans De Waal, GGSC

Empathy seems to occur in animals too. We find it in many of our primate relatives, and even in rats.

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Empathy | What Does Empathy Mean?

Scientifically, much of our modern understanding of empathy is based on the works of Carl Rogers, the American psychologist. In the past, empathy was considered an inborn trait that could not be taught. It was Rogers who told us we can learn to be empathic. That was revolutionary!

Empathy builds an emotional bridge between people and encourages prosocial behaviors, like sharing of experiences, needs, and desires. Imagine empathy as a bridge between minds where the people walk up and share their opinions, beliefs, fears, and anxieties.

When we can sense the suffering of others, it allows us to understand their pain and resonate with their distress. And the distress we experience on seeing them in pain then motivates us to respond with kindness and compassion.

Now, the crucial part: Empathy is imagining and experiencing another person’s feelings and thoughts from their position. You stand in their shoes and feel where the shoe pinches their feet, and understand how it torments them. It’s not how you would have felt if wearing the same shoes, but how they are feeling in those shoes.

Another vital fact: Empathizing is understanding their pain exactly as they feel. A feeling of empathy may not always prod us into going out to help every person who seeks our aid. You can feel empathy for all in pain, but you simply can’t possibly help all who want your help. So, you can be empathetic without wanting to, or being able to, help them.

(Strange fact: Some people have this strange behavior called pathological altruism. It is when a person goes out of their way to seemingly improve another person’s condition, even at a risk or cost to themselves. We see it commonly as codependency, in which a person makes every effort to help their partner’s addiction or any other destructive habit, without being able to leave the relationship.)

Some animals show emotional contagion or social mimicry to another animal in pain. But it is not true empathy, because empathy involves self-awareness, while mimicry does not. Human babies can also show this social mimicry; they can smile at you without understanding why you’re smiling!

So, what does self-awareness mean? Being self-aware means the empathetic person can always distinguish the self from the other. In empathy, one feels they are with someone, but they do not confuse themselves with the other person. That is, one always knows the emotions they are resonating with are the emotions of another person.

In 1975, Carl Rogers wrote Empathic – An Unappreciated Way of Being. In that, he proposed human empathy is a process and not a state. This meant empathy does not come in a fixed amount in each of us, and that all of us can change it for the better or worse. With training, the healthcare workers tend to feel less empathy, especially of the compassionate type. But those caregivers who feel hyperempathy can burn themselves out easily.

Finally, having empathy does not mean you agree with the person. You can empathize, but it doesn’t mean you have to give them your approval or consensus. To sound a little sciencey, this is what Robert Hogan, an international authority on personality assessment and leadership, says: “[Empathy is] the intellectual or imaginative apprehension of another’s condition or state of mind.” Now, Hogan doesn’t mention giving them a nod when in empathy.

So, when in empathy, you can say, “I can understand you, but I don’t agree with you.”

#Empathy is not agreement or approval. It is intuitive sensing of another person’s underlying feelings and wants. Click To Tweet

Empathy | What Are The 3 Types of Empathy?

Paul Ekman, an American psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco, and a pioneer in the field of emotions and micro-expressions, classifies empathy into three types:

1. Cognitive empathy or perspective-taking

The recognizing and understanding of another’s thoughts and feelings. Cognitive empathy is feeling by thinking. It is the form of empathy that psychopaths have lots of—they understand what causes you the most pain and torture you with exactly that—with zero sympathies towards you. So, a psychopath can feel empathy, but not sympathy (we have a video by Brené Brown explaining the difference later in this post). People who score higher on cognitive empathy have more grey matter in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex area of the brain.

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2. Emotional empathy or affective empathy

The vicarious sharing of feelings after an emotional interaction. In this, you understand as well as feel how the shoe pinches the other person. The people in the medical care profession usually have this type of empathy; they fully understand and feel your pain. This type of empathic response is called empathic distress or personal distress. People who score higher on affective empathy have more grey matter in an area of the brain called the anterior insula.

3. Compassionate empathy or empathic concern

The action part of the previous two types, or an impulse to act after understanding and feeling another’s experience. In this, after you can understand and feel the other person’s woe, you take action to resolve it for them. Compassion is a tender response to another’s suffering. Compassion comes with a wish to act. In contrast to empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the suffering of the other.

Cognitive empathy is a well-known forerunner of compassionate empathy. Compassion cannot exist without empathy.

[Some of you might be interested in this: According to some experts, empathy is different from the Theory of Mind (ToM). The ToM is our intellectual ability to assume and presume other peoples’ beliefs, intentions, and thoughts. Empathy, on the other hand, is the capacity to understand and share the emotional experiences of others (Gallese, 2003). While the ToM can be seen as “cognitive” perspective-taking, empathy is known as “emotional” perspective-taking.]

Empathy | Where does it live in our brains?

Studies show “I feel your pain” is much more than a figure of speech. We actually do feel the pain of others.

Empathy is a hardwired capacity in our brains. Brain research shows there is a “neural relay mechanism” that allows empathic people to subconsciously mimic the postures, mannerisms, and facial expressions of others, as compared to unempathic persons.

Neuroscientists have seen this mirroring capacity even at the level of single muscle fibers. So, if a person’s hand muscle is poked by a needle, the same brain areas are activated in the person who is watching it from a distance. Even simply watching or copying an emotional expression stimulates a similar network in the brain of the observer.

We feel another person’s pain, but only in a lessened form. This lessening of the sensation makes it possible for us to empathize but also not get crushed by another’s distress.


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From brain scan studies, scientists have zeroed in on a region called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) which becomes active when one experiences pain, and could also become active when one watched others in pain.

Interestingly, the same studies also showed when observing another person’s pain, this region is more active in people with high levels of empathy (and less active in psychopaths).

The Danish researcher team led by Giacomo Rizzolatti discovered a group of nerve cells in the ACC that become active when a rat sees another rat in pain. These are called “mirror neurons”. Rizzolatti says these cells form the biological basis of empathy and compassion.

Empathy | Why is empathy important in society

Empathy is … a key ingredient of successful relationships because it helps us understand the perspectives, needs, and intentions of others.

Look at the picture below. It’s easy to guess these two ladies are listening and talking to each other with empathy. Empathic communication means listening to a person while reflecting, clarifying, and amplifying their experience, without forcing one’s own words into the conversation.

empathy-is-a-social-emotion
#Empathy is using our imagination to enter another person's world without judging them. Click To Tweet

Empathy is understanding another person’s feelings without passing judgment on them. It is a “social emotion” without which we might even become a threat to society. We must have empathy to have good, authentic relationships.

To be empathic is about listening to understand the reality and meaning behind the spoken words. It is listening without judging, trying to change the other person, or thinking up what should our answers be. It is listening with unconditional respect.

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Can a relationship last without empathy? Can a society thrive without empathy? No. Empathy was the key tool that got us this far in the Natural Selection game. Without empathy, we wouldn’t have helped each other survive through crises.

1. How did empathy help build early human societies?

Time for a great story: A student once asked the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead, “What is the earliest sign of civilization?”

The student expected her to say the wheel, a grinding stone, or a weapon. But Mead replied, “A healed femur.”

Mead said the first evidence of civilization was a 15,000 years old healed femur (thighbone) found in an archaeological site. She explained, in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink, or hunt for food. You are meat for the prowling predators. You get eaten. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal.

A broken femur that has healed is the evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety, and has tended the person through recovery. A healed femur indicates that someone has helped a fellow human, rather than abandoning them to save their own life.

Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization started. And that help could come only after empathy.

2. How to increase empathy in relationships?

Having empathy is a key relationship skill. And like any other skill, we can get better at it through practice. Rick Hanson, a psychologist, suggests empathy can be practiced better by expressing these four basic skills:

  1. Paying attention – listening with full attention, without interrupting, to what they are saying, keeping the focus on their experience.
  2. Inquiring – asking open-ended questions relating to what they are talking about (e.g., How do you feel about him/her? or What do you think they’ll do?).
  3. Digging down – trying to find more about their story, the deeper emotions behind their expressed feelings, imagining how the person might be suffering from inside, wondering how their experiences have shaped them thus.
  4. Double-checking – repeating to them what they are saying to keep it clear what they are saying (e.g., “Let me say back what I hear you saying. Are you saying that …?”)

3. Does empathy has any negative sides?

Empathy has a dark side too. By the dictates of evolution, nature wired us to empathize most with those who are alike. We don’t seem to care much for the others who are socially and culturally different from us. Emotional empathy, or emotional sharing, most easily occurs among members of the same “tribe.”

We have maximum empathy for those who look like or act like us. We feel the most for those who have suffered like us or with whom we share a common goal. This results in biases in various communities and can take the extreme form of racism. Learn more about the five hurtful ways of empathy.

Meanwhile, the poets explain empathy in relationships as only they can:

Empathy vs Sympathy | Video

In this lovingly animated short video by RSA, Brené Brown reminds us we can create a genuine empathic connection only when we are brave enough to get in touch with our frailties.

Brené Brown on Empathy

Empathy | Books

Final Words

Empathy is our ability to sense a person’s emotions and imagine what they might think or feel. We can have empathy as shared happiness or shared suffering—the positive or negative nature of their emotional state does not matter.

Finally, empathy can also hurt you. Find out the 5 Dangerous Effects of Empathy.

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy – a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related medical topics.


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