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.”
Two Kinds of Empathy
Scientists actually think there are a couple kinds of empathy. “Contemporary researchers often differentiate between two types of empathy: ‘Affective empathy’ refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to others’ emotions; this can include mirroring what that person is feeling, or just feeling stressed when we detect another’s fear or anxiety. ‘Cognitive empathy,’ sometimes called ‘perspective taking,’ refers to our ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions” (https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_evolution_of_empathy). You can experience both of these kinds of empathy simultaneously!
We can feel empathy without someone expressing feelings to us in words, but often times we feel it when someone is expressing their internal experience verbally. As renowned humanistic psychologist, Carl Rogers said: “We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know.” There’s just something about language that offers an accessible doorway into the hearts and minds of those around us.
Radio personality, Ira Glass, once suggested, “The story is a machine for empathy. In contrast to logic or reason, a story is about emotion that gets staged over a sequence of dramatic moments, so you empathize with the characters without really thinking about it too much. It is a really powerful tool for imaging yourself in other people’s situations.” You may have heard that definition of empathy, “to put yourself in another person’s shoes.” Yan Martel echoes: “If literature does one thing, it makes you more empathetic by making you live other lives and feel the pain of others.”
That said, language is not the only path to empathy! Have you heard about mirror neurons? Our bodies are equipped with a motor neuron circuity in the premotor cortex and inferior parietal cortex, which many think are the physiological building blocks for empathy. Marco Iacoboni is a fantastic neuroscientist to read if you would like to learn more about how mirror neurons work! In an interview with Jonah Lehrer featured in Scientific American, Iacoboni asserted:
“Mirror neurons are the only brain cells we know of that seem specialized to code the actions of other people and also our own actions. They are obviously essential brain cells for social interactions. Without them, we would likely be blind to the actions, intentions and emotions of other people. The way mirror neurons likely let us understand others is by providing some kind of inner imitation of the actions of other people, which in turn leads us to ‘simulate’ the intentions and emotions associated with those actions. When I see you smiling, my mirror neurons for smiling fire up, too, initiating a cascade of neural activity that evokes the feeling we typically associate with a smile. I don’t need to make any inference on what you are feeling, I experience immediately and effortlessly (in a milder form, of course) what you are experiencing.”
You can also read Iacoboni’s latest book, Mirroring People: The Science of How We Connect to Others, for more! Suffice it to say, this isn’t just some woo woo pseudoscience. In research with chimps, he found that if a chimpanzee was watching another reach for a tasty treat, the same parts of the brain in the observer light up as though they were actually moving their arm to reach for the treat.
Most of us are pre-packaged with the hardware for experiencing empathy, but it’s also something that we learn through relationships and experiences with others. Another buzz phrase that’s probably come across your radar is emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to recognize and manage our own emotions and to also tune into the emotions of others. It’s a skill that you can build with practice and support! I like to mention this because many people grow up in homes where caretakers do not engage with them in ways that nurture empathic abilities, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get better at this emotional dance! Couple therapist and relationship researcher, John Gottman, suggests: “Emotion coaching parents aren’t impatient with their child’s negative emotions. Their first goal is to communicate understanding and empathy.”
So can we feel too much empathy? Short answer: yes. Helping professionals like counselors and therapists have to work to find balance here because if you’re too much of an emotional sponge, it will get in the way of your ability to also think rationally and intellectually. If you’re someone who feels overwhelmed by empathy, I recommend that you take The Highly Sensitive Person Quiz: highly sensitive person quiz. The Highly Sensitive Person is a great book by Elaine Aron that’s a great resource for people who don’t really have a volume dial on their empathic ability.
In general, though, I believe our culture here in the US needs as big a dose of empathy as we can possibly muster. American actor, Max Carver, said: “Empathy is the starting point for creating a community and taking action. It’s the impetus for creating change.” If empathy does one thing, it makes people feel not alone. In her book, Hold Me Tight, Dr. Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, points us to two major findings that should compel us all to develop our abilities to attune with others. She notes, “Sociologist James House of the University of Michigan declares that emotional isolation is a more dangerous health risk than smoking or high blood pressure, and we now warn everyone about these two!” Additionally, she points out, “Louise Hawkley, of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, calculates that loneliness raises blood pressure to the point where the risk of heart attack and stroke is doubled.”
In the US, nearly half of all Americans report feeling alone (https://on.mktw.net/2R2e8LD). Loneliness has negative physiological implications and we can feel empowered to do something about this crisis with empathy! I’ll leave you with some wisdom from the great Audre Lorde: “When you reach out and touch other human beings, it doesn’t matter whether you call it therapy or teaching or poetry.”
Morgan Johnson, MA is a counselor at Luminary Counseling in Austin, TX. Morgan currently serves as a Board Member of the Human Empathy Project.