The word ‘empathy’ gets thrown around a lot these days, but what does it really mean? Let’s start with what empathy is not. Empathy is not feeling sorry or pity for someone. It’s not feeling sympathy, which is feeling compassion for what someone is going through. It’s also not mind reading! Empathy is not simply offering verbal affirmations when you know someone is hurt or upset, and it’s not trying to fix or problem-solve someone’s emotional experiences. Empathy is also not just a base level of understanding; it moves beyond understanding and experiencing something intellectually to actually feeling the experience in your body and heart as well.
If sympathy is feeling for, empathy is feeling with.
If you are empathizing, you’ll feel the feelings that you’d actually be experiencing if you were going through what someone else is. One definition that I love comes from Brené Brown: “Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgement, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of you’re not alone.” Empathy is moving beyond being a witness to a sense of withness. When people experience your empathy, they’re less likely to feel alone or invalidated. St. Benedict also said it beautifully: “Listen and attend with the ear of your heart.”