What is Empathy?

10445Empathy is a vicarious (experienced in the imagination through the feelings or actions of another person) emotional experience in which you feel and understand what another person feels.

The use of empathy is an important part of the counselling technique developed by the American psychologist;
Dr Carl R Rogers (1902-1987).

The English word Empathy is derived from the Ancient Greek word ἐμπάθεια (empatheia), “physical affection, passion, partiality” which comes from ἐν (en), “in, at” and πάθος (pathos), “passion” or “suffering.”

One of the most important personality attributes is empathy. A high level
of empathy may lead to significant altruism and helping behaviour. A lack
of empathy could lead to a lack of helping behaviour or rude and insensitive comments. It is important to define empathy and gain an understanding of the meaning of empathy.

Empathy is not simply perspective taking. Although being able to see things from another person’s perspective may result in the emotional experience of empathy, it is possible to adopt another person’s perspective without experiencing empathy.

If you are experiencing empathy, you feel happy when you observe a person expressing happiness and understand the person’s happiness.
If you are experiencing empathy, you feel sad when you observe a person expressing sadness and understand the person’s sadness. Thus, the above definition suggests that there are two elements of empathy: perspective taking (understanding what another person feels), and vicarious emotion (feeling what another person feels).

Empathy versus Sympathy.
Although sympathy and empathy are similar emotional responses, one could feel sympathy without experiencing empathy. Empathy, but not sympathy, may also require that one understands the person’s feelings. Thus, if you feel sad when another person feels sad, but you do not understand why the person is feeling sad, the emotional response could be labelled as sympathy rather than empathy.
Empathy is, at its simplest, awareness of the feelings and emotions of other people. It is a key element of Emotional Intelligence, the link between self and others, because it is how we as individuals understand what others are experiencing as if we were feeling it ourselves.

Empathy, Sympathy and Compassion.
There is an important distinction between empathy, sympathy and compassion.
Both compassion and sympathy are about feeling for someone: seeing their distress and realizing that they are suffering. Compassion has taken on an element of action that is lacking in sympathy, but the root of the words is the same.
Empathy, by contrast, is about experiencing those feelings for yourself, as if you were that person, through the power of imagination.

Three Types of Empathy.
Psychologists have identified three types of empathy:
• Cognitive empathy understands someone’s thoughts and emotions in a very rational, rather than emotional sense.
• Emotional empathy is when you quite literally feel the other person’s emotions alongside them as if you had ‘caught’ their emotions.
• Compassionate empathy is understanding someone’s feelings, and taking appropriate action to help.

Although in my practice I am an integrative relational psychotherapist and counsellor, my core philosophy is Humanistic, person-centred and Rogerian.
In addition, Empathy is core in my practice to create a safe and confidential therapeutic relationship with my clients.

© 2016, Content: Dr Vasilios Silivistris – Artwork: Ian Francis. All rights reserved.