Just walk a mile in his moccasins
Before you abuse, criticize and accuse.
If just for one hour, you could find a way
To see through his eyes, instead of your own muse.

—Mary T. Lathrap, Walk a Mile in His Moccasins, poem circa 1885

The word empathy first came into public consciousness in 1909 when German psychologist Edward Titchener introduced the German term einfuhlung which means “feeling into.”

Empathy or Sympathy?

There is often confusion about the difference between sympathy and empathy.

This mini-quiz offers a great way to clear things up.

You hear that someone you know has lost a loved one. Your response:

  1. Send a card
  2. Bring chicken soup

The first choice signifies sympathy. You feel badly the other person is suffering. But that’s as far is it goes. The second answer shows you putting action behind the words. You are in the suffering with the person, thus cognizant and caring about what he or she needs.

Research indicates that possessing empathy is crucial for good mental health as being able to connect with others and share enough of yourself to feel connected in return adds immeasurably to relationship happiness. 1

How Empathy Removes Your Toxic Emotions

In my personal experience empathy has also helped me release toxic emotions such as anger, jealousy, and resentment; emotions that can clog the soul.

Years back I lent an ex thousands of dollars for a business he wanted to start. Not long afterward the business failed and Andy (as I’ll call him) and I broke up. It seemed increasingly unlikely I’d be getting my investment back any time soon. I walked around, seething, wishing my ex would be ‘disappeared’ by fire and brimstone.

Only envisioning Andy’s miserable demise didn’t make me feel better.

Then, rooting through a drawer I came across a sweater he’d forgotten to pack and remembered the first time Andy had worn it, head in my lap, sobbing, shortly after his father’s funeral as he recalled how his father would call his son “doomed to fail” and now there would never be an opportunity to prove his parent wrong.

My heart softened as I thought about how the failure of his business must have reopened Andy’s old wounds about his father. Caring about my ex’s pain felt so much better than writhing in negativity. I didn’t want him back but neither did I want to waste energy hating him. Instead, I wished Andy well and let go. (And no I still haven’t seen the borrowed funds but I haven’t put a contract out on his life.)

Much of my work as a therapist involves helping patients look outside themselves and have empathy for others because the more you can widen your perspective, the less you are obsessed with your problems. That’s why volunteering can offer more rewards for the one doing the good deed than for the ones being helped.

3 Types of Empathy

In order to more completely understand empathy, it’s essential to understand the three different kinds: cognitive empathy, affective empathy, and compassionate empathy:

#1.Cognitive Empathy

This involves more rationality than emotion. Cognitive empathy is the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes so that you can understand why he or she believes something. Once you understand—even if you don’t agree—their beliefs make sense. For instance, cognitive empathy helps in a business setting when you must negotiate without getting too caught up in your emotions.

#2. Affective Empathy

Also called emotional empathy, this ability allows us to feel another’s emotions, thus have a shared emotional experience.  When you see someone who is sad, you feel sad as well. Affective empathy is a wonderful building block for great relationships though it is important to guard against being too empathic. Another study demonstrates that becoming consumed with someone else’s pain can lead to an over-concentration of the stress hormone cortisol, and you can become depressed and anxious.2

#3. Compassionate Empathy

Also known as “empathetic motivation or concern,” compassionate empathy is exemplified by someone feeling inspired by another’s plight to take action on his or her behalf. With compassionate empathy, you understand it without letting your emotions engulf you and you can take action. According to psychologist Daniel Goleman, author of EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence, the best way to practice compassionate empathy is to ask the other person what you can do to help.  If he or she cannot put it into words, ask yourself what would help you if you were in that situation, and act accordingly.

5 Ways to Become More Empathetic

Other research points to those with an innate and strong ability to empathize with another’s pain as possessing cognitive neural processes that transcend the strictly sensory process of feeling their own pain. 3 However, this doesn’t mean that someone who lacks this ability—for instance, a person who simply cannot relate to why a spouse would want to be told “I love you” more than once a year, and has never shed a tear at American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) commercials—can not learn to intuit someone else’s mindset and emotions.

One suggestion to up your Empathy IQ: Watch your Tylenol usage. Another new study shows that respondents who took 1000 mg of acetaminophen found their ability to feel empathy toward someone else’s pain or happiness was impacted. (Their ability to experience cognitive empathy was not affected.) This research is noteworthy given that an estimated quarter of Americans take a painkiller containing acetaminophen!

Be curious about others.  Step outside your bubble. Certainly becoming a therapist has enabled me to truly see that just because I haven’t personally experienced homelessness, physical or sexual abuse, being widowed, or bullied, for example, I can zero in on what that feels like by asking questions and truly listening to the impact these life experiences have had on people. Roman Krznaric, an empathy advisor to organizations such as The United Nations suggests having a conversation with at least one stranger a week not about things like the weather but about experiences and feelings, can help increase empathy. 

Pay attention. Start noticing the other person’s facial expressions and body posture; listen closely to the tone of voice. This involves casting aside the cascade of thoughts and opinions flooding into your head and truly, truly being in the moment with this person’s world.

Connect through eye gazing. Shawn Nason, author of The Power of Yes! In Innovation suggests an exercise guaranteed to move the empathy needle forward. Stare into someone’s eyes for three minutes—be it a romantic partner, friend or stranger (bonus points if it’s the latter!) How do you feel differently about this person?

Read fiction. Studies have shown that walking a mile in another’s moccasins is a task made easier by reading literary fiction that truly brings you into worlds you would not otherwise enter.

On a micro level, empathy is important to help us better co-exist with everyone in our life from stubborn spouses to demanding children to nosy neighbors and insecure bosses. However, on a macro level in what many consider a contentious, narrow-focused environment where there is a callous disregard toward people lacking a common bond (other than membership in the human race), strengthening our empathy muscle is urgent.

Happy empathizing!


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Last Updated: Feb 21, 2020