Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.

ABSTRACT:  The valuable skill of empathy is described, as well as how to cultivate more and more accurate empathy.

KEY WORDS:  empathy, understanding

Empathy (the ability to feel, know, and/or appreciate what another person is feeling, thinking, or experiencing without being directly informed of it by the other person) is the one human ability that is most helpful to us in our efforts to have good relations with others and to live together harmoniously and productively.  If we could not appreciate what others are feeling, we would not care about them as we do.  If we could not intuit or “interpret” what others are thinking, we would not feel comfortable around them, because we could not predict what they would do next (and could therefore not “trust” them).  Empathy allows us to recognize our basic similarity to other people and therefore become willing to give them the same rights that we have.  Empathy also helps us to anticipate the reactions of others to various behaviors we might choose to do, so that we can then choose behaviors that will be most to our advantage.  Empathy makes possible accepting others as they are, and it also makes possible (but is not sufficient for) choosing as our behaviors those that do not harm others and behaviors that benefit both ourselves and others.  (Without this empathic appreciation of others’ subjective experience, reason easily gets off course.)

Empathy is a key skill for coming to understand the deeper and comprehensive truth about human beings, since the more accurate information we have about people, the better we can understand them.  This includes understanding ourselves as well, since we often come to understand ourselves through understanding others.  Having empathy helps us to abandon the false assumption that so many people make that others feel about and view the world the same way that they themselves do (which leads to surprise, fear, and anger toward others when we are confronted with the fact that they are not just like us).

Failures and mistakes usually flow from misunderstanding information about the environment, about oneself, or about others, and from purposive (though often unconscious) distortions of reality in order to avoid emotions or to justify desired actions.  Empathy helps us to understand others’ misunderstandings and errors, which can open up opportunities to work toward common understandings.

Having empathy involves both emotional and cognitive components. We resonate with the other person’s expressions of emotions, and we also perceive the other person’s situation and place ourselves in that situation in order to imagine what the other person is feeling or otherwise experiencing.  We observe the cues from others in words, voice patterns, posture, movements, and facial expressions, and putting this together with what we perceive and what we know historically about the person’s current situation and concerns, we intuit or imagine and partially experience what that person is feeling and thinking.  This is a complicated process, and empathy is often only partially accurate and sometimes wrong.  Our internal processes are so complex that empathy generally captures only the highlights of what is happening for the other person, but the more we know about the cues that we see in a particular person and the more we know about his circumstances, the deeper and more accurate our empathy can be. 

It should be clear that in order to have empathy for others, we must we willing to experience, at least to some degree, what the other person is experiencing.  Also, in order for us to make sense of what we experience of another person’s experience, we must have some familiarity with the sorts of things that the other person is experiencing.  Therefore, self-awareness provides the foundation for empathy, since in empathy we respond from our own past experience to cues that we think are telling us what others are thinking and feeling.   If we are not in touch with our own emotional experience, then we cannot make sense of the other person’s emotions.  An important next step is to adjust our initial impressions, that are based on our similarities to the other person and her experience, using our knowledge of how we are different from her and how her circumstances are different from our own.

Empathy allows us to view firsthand the tendency that we have to view the world the way we want the world to be, as well as to distort reality in order to avoid unpleasant emotions and improve our security and self-esteem.  (This concept of how we want the world to be, or how the world “should” be, is one way we have of preserving hope and of preserving the belief that there is some order and fairness to life.)

It takes us years of observing and trying to make sense of ourselves and others to develop accurate empathy, and it is critical that empathy be accurate if our actions based on our conclusions from that empathy are to be beneficent.  In this process of developing accurate empathy, the skill of facing reality squarely and not distorting our understanding in order to feel better ourselves or to spare others is clearly essential.

The typical difficulties we encounter in having accurate empathy are (1) not correctly perceiving another person’s situation, (2) not being familiar with the feelings likely to be associated with that situation (3) not wanting to feel the same painful or unpleasant feelings that the other person is feeling, (4) being afraid of being too close to others, (5) fearing that having empathy will mean that one will always give in to others’ needs, and (6) assuming that others feel and think the same way we do about the world (which they do not),

Accuracy of perception depends on paying attention, attending to all of the relevant factors in a situation (emotions, thoughts, others involved, the history of the person with similar situations, cultural context, etc.), and having some familiarity with the type of situation in which the other person finds herself.  We can choose to pay attention, to take seriously what is happening, and to learn enough about the other group to have useful familiarity.  (If we do not care enough to pay serious attention, we can only ask ourselves why knowing about and understanding these others is not important to us.)

We should assess whether we have sufficient familiarity with the situation before we enter an empathic connection, whether it deals with relationships, expectations, customs, or coping with the world around us.  Fortunately, most external situations are common to us all (getting along with others, doing our daily work, raising children), but many of us shy away from familiarity with internal situations such as dealing with depression or anguish.  Most of us could broaden and deepen our human awareness by learning more about dealing with emotions.  Learning about other cultures and knowing that our own culture’s customs are only one way to live can also help us to understand a broader array of people and situations.

Being empathic requires that we be willing to partially experience what others are feeling.  We may prefer to avoid emotions in general, and we may resist the experience of feeling what someone else is feeling.  If a person is not secure in his own boundaries, he is likely to avoid experiencing the feelings of others, since this could lead to uncertainty about identity and difficulty in making decisions.

Some people resist empathy because they do not wish to deal with emotional pain, whether it is their own or that of others.  They do their best to deny or otherwise avoid their own painful emotions, instead of dealing with them or managing them.  Such people are cut off from an important area of human experience, since if we cannot appreciate emotional pain, we are cut off from the information that such pain can give us about what needs to be done or improved in our lives.  Learning to accept and manage our own emotional pain can lead to greater ability to empathize with others (and to closer, more satisfying relationships with them).  This requires working to become more tolerant of the full range of our feelings.

Some people fear that closeness will result in “engulfment” (the primitive fear that if one is close with someone, one will be taken in or taken over and completely controlled by that person).  Engulfment fears may require psychotherapy if they are to be overcome.  Some people fear closeness because they fear being hurt or rejected in a close relationship, but this can be overcome by becoming more supportive and loving toward oneself, to help one better tolerate the negative things that others can sometimes do.

Some people resist having empathy for others because they think that it will mean being overly sympathetic toward others and giving in to others all the time.  Fortunately, this is not true.  Appreciating what others experience simply gives us more options.  Depending on history and circumstances, we may decide to let others have their way or to help them, or we may decide that it is appropriate or necessary for us to have what we want and for them to give way to us.  Being appropriately assertive in taking good care of ourselves is an essential skill in getting along with others, for we cannot get along well with others if we resent them for what we give to them or what they have taken from us.

Many errors in empathy arise from incorrectly interpreting what others are thinking or feeling because we believe that they react to stimuli and situations more or less as we do ourselves.  In terms of some basic life situations in our own culture, this may be true, but even within our own culture each person is unique, and the picture that each of us has in his or her head of the world is somewhat different.  We must realize that others may feel differently about things than we do and not assume that they feel the same as we do.  We imagine ourselves in their situation and note how we would feel, but we must then adjust our empathic understanding for the ways in which the other person is different from us.  Taking differences into account is especially important with a person from another culture or background, since that person will almost certainly have different assumptions than we do about the meaning of events and about how people are expected to feel about them.  The more ways in which the other person is different from us that we can take into account, the more accurate our empathy will be.

 Having too little empathy is socially maladaptive, but some people have too much of it, as when they cannot escape from the feelings of others or when they suffer so much for others (in regard to what they understand to be the experience of those others) that they become dysfunctional themselves.   People with too much empathy will benefit from toning it down, but in order to do this they may have to deal with why others’ feelings are so influential with them, which may have resulted from their own permeable personal boundaries and may also be part of a pattern of putting others ahead of themselves in life in general.

 Perhaps the key in this regard is that while using empathy, we partially experience (at a lower intensity) the experience of others, but at the same time we know that our experiencing of this is our own experiencing. We are not actually experiencing the feelings of another person.  In other words, when we experience something empathically, it is still ourselves processing and experiencing the information and emotions.  In empathy we are not “taken over” by the experience of others so that we become those others and think and feel exactly what those others are thinking and feeling.  We are ourselves trying purposely to put ourselves into the shoes of others to understand better what others are experiencing. 

The “proper” amount of empathy allows us to gladly join with others in their experience when we want to and withdraw from it when we wish.  It allows us to feel gratified when we affect the experience of others positively by our behavior, and it helps us to remember that we are basically similar to each other, having the same needs and emotions as everyone else.

Expand and deepen your empathy by paying more attention to others’ feelings and thoughts and relating them, as appropriate, to your own feelings and thoughts.  Purposely imagine what you believe they feel and think, based on your observations of them and using both your emotional resonance with them and your interpretations of what they say and what they do.  Don’t fight the awareness that these practices will bring.  Allow yourself to accept others for who they are (which does not mean that you like everything about them or allow them to take advantage of you).