Empathy is the ability to understand another person's
emotional state. Recognizing how you think and behave in response to others is
essential for building stronger relationships and becoming more empathetic.
Learn more about the definition of empathy and how to demonstrate it.
Definition of Empathy: What Is Empathy?
Empathy is derived from the Greek word
"empatheia," which means "passion," and the German word
"einfÃ¼hlung," which means "feeling into something." It
means understanding and feeling another person's emotions as if they were your
own. In a broader sense, empathy is a cognitive and emotional skill that allows
you to understand, relate to, and mutually share another person's experience in
order to better understand their emotional pain.
Understanding the emotional state of others, according to
psychologist Daniel Goleman, is one of the primary components of emotional
intelligence. Mirror neurons in the brain, according to neuroscientists, activate
empathetic emotional responses, allowing you to understand and feel the
emotions of others.
The Two Kinds of Empathy
Experts in psychology distinguish two types of empathy:
1. Empathy for others' emotions: Emotional empathy, also
known as affective empathy, refers to feelings triggered by another person's
happiness or sadness. Emotional empathy, according to neuroscience, can mean
that your own feelings mirror how the other person feels or that you experience
discomfort when another person expresses suffering.
2. Cognitive empathy: Cognitive empathy, also known as
perspective-taking, is based on the listener's ability to relate to another
person's perspective without imposing their own experience, point of view, or
biases. Cognitive empathy is defined by psychologists as a theory of mindâ€”that
is, thinking about another person's thoughts or perspectives without
attribution of feelings or matching another person's emotional state.
Explained: Lack of Empathy
A person may lack human empathy, altruism, or pro-social
behaviors for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to:
Autistic spectrum disorder (ASD): Some autistic people have
difficulty reading facial expressions. People's emotions may be difficult to
understand for those who cannot interpret facial expressions.
Blaming the victim: If a person expects fairness and
justice, it may be difficult for them to feel empathy for victims of crimes and
may make the cognitive choice to blame the victim in order to maintain their
perceived view of the world.
Cognitive bias: Some people have cognitive biases that
prevent them from understanding how others feel. Biases can manifest as the
belief that, while external factors cause your own emotions, other people's emotional
problems are the result of personal weakness.
Lack of connection: You may lack empathy if you believe that
people who disagree with you do not feel the same way you do. Personal distress
in the daily lives of people living in a different country far away, for
example, may not elicit an empathetic response.
Personality disorders: such as borderline personality
disorder, schizoid personality disorder, bipolar disorder, and narcissistic
personality disorder can all have an impact on empathy skills.
How to Show True Empathy
Understanding another person's point of view builds trust,
reduces conflict, and strengthens relationships. To improve your empathy and
emotional intelligence, try the following:
1. Be open to criticism. When sharing your feelings, honesty
and authenticity can encourage the other person to be honest with you.
2. Investigate your own biases. People typically believe
that their behavior is the result of specific circumstances, whereas another
person's behavior is a personality flaw. Understanding your biases will help
you see how they limit your ability to empathize with others if you have
opposing views. Find out more about cognitive bias.
3. Get to know other people. When you get to know someone
well, you can better understand how they think and why they behave the way they
do. Inquire about their lives and emotions, and try to understand your
differences without passing judgment.
4. Put yourself in their place. Even if you disagree,
imagining how the other person might feel in a given situation allows for
understanding and empathy.
5. Pay attention without interrupting. Empathy entails
paying complete attention to the person attempting to express their feelings
without interrupting, arguing, or interjecting your opinion. Improve your listening
6. Pay attention to body language and facial expressions.
Even if the person is silent, their body language and facial expressions can
reveal a lot about how they are feeling. Do they appear agitated? Sad? Use
these indicators to help guide you when speaking with someone you want to
empathize with. Learn more about reading body language.
Explained: Empathy Fatigue
Excessive empathizing can result in exhaustion, guilt,
anxiety, and depression. Healthcare workers and caregivers, in particular, who
witness suffering and death, may experience empathy fatigue if they become
emotionally attached to the well-being of their patients.
Witnessing traumatic or disturbing events causes empathy
fatigue as a defense mechanism, affecting your ability to care for others over
time. You may feel socially isolated, emotionally numb, depressed, angry,
self-blame, and unable to relate to others. Physical symptoms include
exhaustion, headaches, nausea, insomnia, and substance abuse.
Examples of Empathy
Empathy is the ability to feel another person's pain as if
it were your own. Here are three examples of when and how you might use empathy
in your own life:
1. A direct parallel or similarity: "Believe it or not,
I remember what it was like to be in high schoolâ€”I have a lot of empathy for
you trying to fit in." Empathy is demonstrated when you can directly
relate to another person's experience and imagine how they feel.
2. A learned skill: Empathy is a skill that can be learned.
While many people are born with the ability to empathize, others learn to do so
by sitting with someone who is in distress. It's difficult to express sympathy
when another person's grief becomes your own.
3. A sense of shared experience: "I've had my own
mental health issues, so I have a lot of empathy for you." One of the key
indicators of empathy is having a similar experience to another person. The
more you share with another person, the more likely you are to feel empathy for