Empathy is the ability to see other people’s point of view “as if” through their eyes. People imagine another’s experience as if they are that person, and they feel the emotions that naturally arise from the perceptions of walking through the other’s situation. Although empathy is not an emotion as such, when people empathise, they feel an array of emotions from the subjective world they’re empathising with. In years to come it may be considered an emotion. Hence, besides being an important concept to grasp, having a description of empathy seems obligatory on any emotional literacy course, for the range of emotions one understands determines empathic ability.
Empathy can be a frustratingly difficult ability to grasp. People get distracted by their outlook and accidentally introduce their emotional material into the process. This perceptual contamination is a common problem with sympathy. Empathy is often confused with sympathy because at face value they are very similar. Nonetheless, empathy is far more useful as a tool for understanding and defining someone else’s emotions. It has more potential for comprehensively understanding the subjective reality of another than sympathy – including grasping motives.
Sympathy denotes an experience of people who relate to what another person is feeling due to having felt a similar way, and it’s the most natural and prolific means of communication that exists. The experiences do not have to be the same, rather they share a similar consequence. Sympathy works along the lines of identification; if people felt deeply sad after the loss of a loved one, they can feel sympathy for another who has just lost a loved one. Identifying the situation through a similar experience enables people to make allowances for the way another is feeling in the present and will be feeling in the not so distant future. It does not have to be the same loved one for people to extrapolate, so people appreciate the sense of loss and despair the other is experiencing.
Empathy, on the other hand, does not require people to identify a similar experience in their past to imagine someone’s situation. People sometimes think that because the empathising process does not rely on common ground that it’s less valuable. This is a mistake. Empathy is less personal, in the sense that people are not directly experiencing and recalling evocative emotions from memory. Surprisingly, it is this point that allows more subjective intimacy to develop between people.
Experiences are often too close to the bone or too personal. If someone is talking about something very personal, listeners may not want to associate it with their experience. It could trigger memories that make it extremely difficult to stay focused on what the other is saying. Sympathising can get in the way of developing a relationship with someone because of getting emotionally over-involved, and not being able to detach another’s feelings from one’s own. Past feelings can get intermingled in the conversation which makes them difficult to separate within the narrative being expressed. These things faze people. Empathy allows people to avoid this sort of fazed state while staying focused on what the other is relating.
In the strictest sense, the emotions that people feel whilst empathising use representations that stem from their brain and their experience. Nevertheless, the emotions are not associated with their past self or their life narrative. The neurological process involves the so-called mirror neuron system. When people perceive an event, their prefrontal brain relays it to the insular region of their somatosensory system, so they associate the perceived event with a sort of role playing unit of their brain that has access to the ways they usually react to those perceptions. These are called their body mapped dispositions (somatic markers). In those maps they have stored real emotional, mental, biological and physiological dispositions they use with relation to the events they are imagining.1 Thus, they have access to reactions that are true to life associated with the imagined event. The process is done in an as if state. A sort of neurological theatre screens a movie of another person’s trials and tribulations from a first person perspective. Empathy does not have the same effect as sympathy due to this dissociative state.
This dynamic creates a professional distance that helps maintain relationships – especially professional ones. It also means that people are not limited to the confines of having similar experiences to another. Empathy lends itself to an appreciation of diversity that is unlikely to develop if people only relate to others in a sympathetic way. People can enjoy the emotional undertones and overtones of another person’s related experience even though they share little in common. Sympathy relies on having experiences in common whereas empathy does not. The word empathy is a young word that has been in common use for around 50-years. It is a very new, even innovative, word that describes the perceptual evolution of human interpersonal dynamics.
In the past, some academics and intellectuals have argued over the word. Though these people may have a good understanding of Latin and ancient Greek, they usually have no therapeutic training. It’s been argued that empathy is not really a useful word, for it’s an American invention to replace the word sympathy which has been used for thousands of years, so no properly educated individual would use it. The intimation is that the word is to be avoided.
Apart from the word being of German origin and coined specifically for its current meaning, the point is that the word is still not accepted by many people as having any distinct meaning other than a synonym for sympathy. This is untrue. Empathy is different and has its own very distinct and unique meaning. No other word describes the experience or the depth that the word implies. Empathy is unique from any other experience for its potential to offer insight into another person’s experience of life. It’s a process that’s invaluable in many situations, such as comprehending a child’s view of the world; helping someone with distress and anxiety; ascertaining someone’s motives in court.
Empathy also helps people to develop emotional literacy. Continually focusing on another’s perceptions, experiencing the emotions that arise, naturally develops into ways of communicating what is seen and felt. People can learn things from the experiences of others and empathy increases that depth.
There are, however, two considerations to be cautious of when empathising.
First, it’s possible for people to empathise too much and lose their sense of identity. People can unwittingly become dominated by another’s views even though their intent is to help. When people become too immersed in another person’s view of the world, they neglect and forget important aspects of themselves in the process. When overused, empathy creates an identity crisis as people forget the perceptual as if boundaries between two subjective worlds.
Second, a biassing experience called “empathy gaps” exists. Yet this does not strictly apply to empathy as much as it specifically applies to erroneous judgements of future or past behaviour. It refers to different intensities of emotional arousal. When people are in an highly aroused – hot – state (e.g. fury, hunger, sexual), they find it more difficult to empathise with and understand the cognitive processes of those who are in a low – cold – state of arousal. The reverse is true for when people are in a cold state (not furious, not hungry, not sexual) of arousal whilst trying to empathise with someone in a hot state. People in a cold state of arousal are prone to under-appreciate what it will feel like to be in a hot future scenario.
These empathy gaps in appreciation of feelings also apply to past experiences such as in the morning after experience of trying to make sense of last night’s wild behaviour. This is thought to be because people interpret future and past experiences through projecting their current thoughts into an imagined subjective world.2 But also because their cognitive processing of information is modified depending on what emotion they’re currently experiencing.3
This empathy gap biassing applies more to situations where people are simply imagining a subjective reality. In contrast, empathy gaps apply less in situations where people are narrating their experience in a responsive way – the therapeutic environments influencing the aroused state of the therapist. If people are sitting in a room empathising with a person, they naturally begin to experience similar levels of arousal due to perceiving the same narrated content. A therapist’s mood would have to be seriously disturbed, by an event that kept him or her in a specific hot or cold state, not to be able to reach and keep empathic harmony because of empathy gaps.
Mastering empathy is a highly skilled endeavour, and it’s probably the most important tool for defusing conflicted situations on personal and professional levels.
Ancient Greek. Empatheia = passion, state of emotion.
German. Einfühlung = ein ‘in’ + Fühlung ‘feeling’.
1. To see, or perceive, the world through another’s eyes.
2. To comprehend the actions and feelings of another by understanding their reasoning.