Empathy is the ability to emotionally understand what people feel, seeing things from their point of view, and imagine yourself in their place. Essentially it is putting yourself in someone else’s position and feeling what they must be feeling. When you see another person suffering, you might be able to instantly envision yourself in another person’s place and feel sympathy for what they are going through.
While people are generally pretty well — attuned to their own feelings and emotions, getting into someone else’s head can be a bit more difficult. The ability to feel empathy allows people to “walk a mile in another’s shoes”, so to speak. It permits people to understand the emotions that others are feeling.
Empathy helps us cooperate with others, build friendship, make moral decisions, and intervene when we see others being bullied. Humans begin to show signs of empathy in infants and the traits develop steadily through childhood and adolescence. Still, most people are likely to feel greater empathy for people like themselves and may feel less empathy for those outside their family, community, ethnicity , or race.
There are also, however, different types of empathy that have been defined by psychologists.
- Cognitive empathy — Cognitive empathy, also known as ‘perspective — taking’ is not really what most of us would think as empathy at all.Cognitive empathy is basically being able to put yourself in someone else’s place and see their perspective. It enables you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, but without necessarily engaging with their emotions. Effectively, cognitive empathy is ‘empathy by thoughts’, rather than by feeling.
- Emotional empathy — Emotional empathy is when you quite literally feel the other person’s emotion alongside, as if you had ‘caught’ the emotions.Emotional empathy is also known as ‘personal distress’ or ‘emotional contagion’. This is closer to the usual understanding of the word empathy, but more emotionally.
- Compassionate empathy — Compassionate empathy is what we usually understand by empathy: feeling someone’s pain and taking action to help.The name compassionate empathy, is consistent with what we usually understand by compassion.Like sympathy, compassion is about feeling concern for someone, but with additional move towards action to mitigate the problem.
- Somatic empathy– It is defined as feeling someone else’s pain physically. For example, if you see someone hurt, you too might suffer the physical pain.
- Spiritual empathy — It is defined as a direct connection with the ‘higher being’ or consciousness.It is the same as ‘enlightenment’ in the Eastern philosophical tradition, and is considered achievable through meditation.
“Sometimes all a person wants is an empathetic ear; all he or she needs is to talk it out. Just offering a listening ear and an understanding heart for his or her suffering can be a big comfort.”
― Roy T. Bennett
Empathy, sympathy and compassion are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same.
Sympathy is feeling of concern for someone else, and a desire that they become happier or better off, while empathy involves sharing the other person’s emotions. Compassion is an empathetic understanding of a person‘s feelings are accompanied by altruism, or a desire to act on that person‘s behalf.
In healthy relationships, people expect their partners to empathise with them when they face hardships or personal struggles, but the ability to empathise with the partner in a good times may be important. I personally feel, displaying empathy for a partner’s positive emotion is much more beneficial for relationship satisfaction than only empathising with his or her negative emotions.
Fortunately, empathy is a skill that you can learn and strengthen. If you would like to build your empathy skills there are a few things you can do:
- Pay attention to body language and other types of non-verbal communications.
- Work on listening to people without interrupting.
- Try to understand people, even when you don’t agree with them.
- Ask people questions to learn more about them and their lives.
- Imagine yourself in another person’s shoes.
Try and develop empathy in yourself and see the drastic change that you will experience in yourself and in the people around you.