What is Empathy?
9 minute read
(12 if you're from Kentucky.)
Co-founder and COO, Practice Empathy™
It’s a fair question, especially in today’s sociopolitical climate, because, well, hell, if everybody knew what empathy was, there would be a whole lot more listening and understanding and compromising and doling out hugs and handshakes instead of the opposite of all of that.
Empathy. We know it's a good thing but do we fully understand what it is and how to cultivate it? As humans, we are entirely dependent on empathy, and yet why haven’t many of us fully grasped what this word truly means? Is our demise imminent if we can’t embrace an understanding of empathy or are do-gooders simply the yin to the yang of the wicked, and that battle between good and evil is simply a way of life that has and always will exist?
Great questions, you!
Empathy is all about the emotions of others. As social beings, the ability to understand each other helps us to get along, form meaningful relationships, and solve each other's problems. Empathy can describe a variety of situations but it all comes down to sensing what another person is feeling. Whether you have a slight inkling, a deep emotional response, or have logically figured out someone else's emotions, you're experiencing a state of empathy. Or maybe heartburn. So if you take an antacid and still feel it, it’s empathy.
Empathy, as the cliche reminds us, is walking in another person's shoes, even if they’re ugly and don’t match the rest of your outfit. It's a chance to step back, have a sip of coffee, and take a moment to ponder a view of the world from another perspective, whatever that viewpoint happens to be and whether you agree or not.
Is Empathy the Same as Sympathy?
Empathy is a very specific experience that is sometimes misidentified. Most commonly, people experiencing sympathy believe that they are being empathetic.
As I have determined to increase my understanding of my own empathy, it has been important to understand the distinction between the two.
Sympathy involves engaging in the emotions of others but not necessarily by understanding or identifying with them. It's closer to the feeling of pity, in which you acknowledge that someone else is suffering. When you're sympathetic, you may also feel some distress for the person in pain and will care about them. However, you aren't really able to fully understand their emotions, whether through logic and imagination, or experiencing those emotions for yourself.
When Lola broke up with Tommy, because she is shallow and superficial and Tommy wouldn’t cut his hair the way Lola wanted it cut, and then Tommy came over to your house after football practice to cry on your shoulder, and you said, “There, there now, Tommy. It’s gonna be okay,” that is sympathy. As you can in no way understand what Tommy is going through specifically (because your hairstyle is flawless), you nevertheless want to console him the best you can.
Last week, when you were looking for an edge in life, and you moved from checkout line 3 to checkout line 4 at your local Kroger, and the sweet little old lady in front of you promptly began to finger through her bulky purse to pull out her eyeglasses and her checkbook to slowly and methodically write out her payment for her groceries, and the clerk just looked at you with eyes that said, “I feel you, playa,” that was empathy. He’s been there; he knows how you felt.
The Evolutionary Origins of Empathy
The success of the human species has come down to one quality: cooperation. Elephants are stronger and cheetahs are faster, but we're the ones who have figured out how working together helps us to achieve more. We've built cities, landed on the moon, and painted great works of art. We’ve evolved from the caves to a civilization, we’ve executed business deals across language barriers and borders, and we’ve tackled some truly perplexing environmental issues.
We invented this thing: