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What is Empathy?

Empathy is commonly practiced in alcohol recovery groups.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 28 March 2014
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Empathy is a feeling different from sympathy. When one is sympathetic, one implies pity but maintains distance from another person’s feelings. Empathy is more a sense that one can truly understand or imagine the depth of another person’s feelings. It implies feeling with a person, rather than feeling sorry for a person.

Empathy is a translation of the German term Einfühlung, meaning to feel as one with. It implies sharing the load, or “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes,” in order to appropriately understand that person’s perspective.

In therapy, for example, being sympathetic with a patient implies a distance and a failure to understand the patient’s viewpoint. On the other hand, the therapist who displays empathy is attempting to further his or her understanding from the perspective of the patient. This implies closeness rather than distance as it makes little distinction between the person suffering and the person attempting to understand the suffering. However, the therapist must also protect him or herself from becoming entangled in the emotional state of the client. Some distance needs to be maintained even when empathy is practiced.

Group therapy often works because those with a specific issue, such as alcoholism, are able to show empathy to each other. Each person who is an alcoholic finds it easier to understand others who struggle with alcoholism.

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Alternately, a group dedicated to providing support to people that have lost a child relies on the empathy of the members. Each person has something in common with the other group members. They can all deeply understand the monumental importance and tragedy of losing a child in a way that cannot be understood by a person who has not lost a child.

Often people who have suffered a loss or experienced a tragedy find themselves put off by sympathy. Sympathy often emphasizes that the grieving person is alone. Even when kindly meant, sympathy is often rejected. Grieving people don’t necessarily want pity, but instead want understanding. Finding friends who can offer empathy helps to restore perspective in a world that has been torn by tragedy. It emphasizes that one is not alone, and shares his or her intense feelings with other people.

For those who truly wish to help a grieving person, empathy is not always possible. Most people cannot even begin to be “as one with” a person who has been raped, abused, or who has suffered the death of a loved one. However, in attempting to express empathy, one needs to think carefully. “What would this really be like?” Sometimes the only appropriate response is to say to a person: “I can only imagine how difficult this must be for you.” In this way, we come closest to empathy.

In literature, catharsis for the reader is often achieved through empathy with a character. In fact, often literature, and other artistic mediums like film can be helpful psychologically. When a character is drawn well and one relates to the character's thoughts or experiences, the resolutions made by the character can forward the reader or viewer into new ways of thinking about one’s own situations. In this way the reader or viewer’s own empathy may provoke catharsis.

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Discuss this Article

anon303713
Post 10

My boyfriend is going through a lot right now. He has to have a serious surgical procedure, his mom is to be placed in hospice and he has had a whole lot he's wanted to do, but can't because of these "bumps in the road."

He can put off one trip for this, but he has planned to see his mom for Christmas. I do know how he feels. I've had plenty of "bumps" in my life since I've been seeing him and he's always been there for me. I want to be there for him and want him to feel how I feel for his current situation, but all that hears from me and says he feels are only words.

I know how he feels, but don't know really how to express it without sounding unfeeling.

anon272793
Post 8

Is this really important?

anon117810
Post 6

"no you don't" is a response that will more often than not, be communicated. Having true empathy is more than just expressing with mere words.

anon91721
Post 5

i get angry whenever someone says 'i know just how you feel.' i think the normal response to this is "No you don't!"

anon53633
Post 3

I agree with breadcrumbs51. If someone says "I know how you feel" to a person, and they really don't know how that person feels, then that's just kumquats.

anon15064
Post 2

Are alcoholics and/or children of alcoholics generally less likely to show empathy and compassion for others?

breadcrumbs51
Post 1

People who have not gone through a specific situation need to be careful about trying to express empathy when they should be expressing sympathy. Saying "I know just how you feel," is often taken the wrong way, especially if the recipient knows that you DON'T know at all how he or she feels. Sometimes it's better to stick to listening.

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