Understanding Empathy

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated April 2, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Empathy is a quality that can help us better understand how others feel, which can improve our capacity to communicate effectively and to act in a considerate manner. Without the many types of empathy, including cognitive and emotional empathy, building relationships and making decisions in social contexts can be significantly more complicated. Let’s explore exactly what empathy is and learn how you can develop a stronger sense of it to improve your interactions with others.

Do you struggle to feel empathy towards others?

What empathy is and is not, and why it’s important

What is empathy? The American Psychological Association (APA) defines empathy as the ability to understand another person from their frame of reference rather than your own. Many people assume that sympathy and empathy are interchangeable, but they aren’t exactly.

The main difference between empathy and sympathy is that of perspective-taking. Sympathy refers to the act of experiencing sadness or another emotion as a result of witnessing or hearing about the experiences of others while maintaining some distance. Empathy is the capacity to put yourself directly in someone else’s shoes (in some cases, regardless of their beliefs or any gender differences there may be between you.) Empathy involves imagining how another person is feeling without necessarily feeling it yourself.

That’s why experiencing empathy is more useful when it comes to relationships and social situations. You don’t necessarily need to also feel offended by something that offends someone else, especially in the case of cognitive empathy. But being able to imagine why they might feel offended by that thing can help you respond appropriately. These may be emotional reactions or, in some cases, physical ones (as can be the case with empathy relating to the use of mirror neurons.) 

In other words, cultivating a reasonable sense of empathy can be what allows you to understand where another person’s coming from and be thoughtful in your own actions and responses as a result. Understanding the definition of empathy is crucial because this can be the foundation for stronger, smoother relationships since it can help both parties feel heard and assist everyone in avoiding insensitive missteps that can create or prolong conflicts.

Why empathy levels may vary among individuals

Empathy levels can vary for a number of reasons, one being the occurrence of empathy fatigue. Empathy fatigue refers to the change in a person’s empathetic capacity due to mental exhaustion (often relating to the care or support they have to provide for others.)  In addition, a strong sense of empathy may not come naturally to everyone. Historically, individuals on the neurodivergent spectrum were typically associated with having lower levels of empathy, resulting in their difficulty reading the emotional responses or social cues of others. However, as a 2020 paper points out, this may well be a mischaracterization that has the potential to be harmful. In fact, it quotes other studies that cite the “hyperarousal of the empathic system” and “intense, uncontrollable empathy” often experienced by neurodivergent people. In actuality, it’s possible for both neurodivergent or neurotypical people to have a tendency to have too much emotional empathy (as well as other types), meaning they lose sight of their own needs and feelings in a situation that involves someone else’s personal distress. 

There are also some mental health conditions for which a lack or low levels of empathy may be a symptom. Those experiencing these conditions may struggle to feel the same emotion as someone else or understand their perspective. A few of these mental health conditions include:

  • antisocial personality disorder
  • borderline personality disorder
  • narcissistic personality disorder

There’s also the condition of alexithymia, which is defined as “a personality trait characterized by difficulties identifying and describing feelings and an externally oriented thinking style”. It’s not a disorder per the DSM-5, but it can be the result of a traumatic brain injury, epilepsy, and other neurological diseases.

Finally, different individuals may simply experience empathy at different levels, whether due to genetics and neurological wiring or to the environment they grew up in. Some of these differences may be related to the hypothesized source of empathy, the medial prefrontal cortex. Research suggests that the prefrontal cortex, specifically the medial region, plays an important role in the experience of empathetic emotion. In addition, levels of empathy may vary depending on what type of empathy is being measured, with some people having different capacities for cognitive, emotional, and affective empathy. For those who are interested in increasing their sense of empathetic concern in order to improve their interactions with others, there are a variety of ways to work toward doing so.


Tips for cultivating a stronger sense of empathy

Building a stronger sense of empathy requires developing one’s emotional intelligence, but is generally possible with time, effort, and patience. Here are some strategies to try if developing empathy at a higher level is something you are interested in.

Practice open communication in relationships

One powerful way to develop more empathy is to communicate openly in relationships, whether romantic, platonic, work-related, or otherwise, and to build a safe space where others can do the same. Try practicing active listening in an effort to gain a genuine understanding of where the other person is coming from, and work on getting in touch with and then communicating your own feelings as well. Empathy and compassion go hand in hand—if you notice a change in someone’s behavior that indicates they’re feeling a certain emotion, you might ask them about it—gently and with curiosity and compassion. Over time, you can learn a lot about how the way others’ emotions work.

Read fiction and research

Studies suggest that reading fiction can help us develop empathy because it provides us with a window into the thoughts and feelings of a huge variety of different characters. The study was initially very popular, but it has since drawn criticism. As a 2016 Atlantic article put it, “Reading Literature Won’t Give You Superpowers”. It’s still possible that reading fiction can help people cultivate a stronger sense of empathy, or there may be an unrelated factor at play here. That said, reading about people whose lives and emotional worlds are different from our own may at least be helpful in exposing us to different perspectives, even if internalizing them doesn’t happen quite that easily.

You may also be able to understand empathy more clearly by looking into research done about the subject. One example would be the study conducted by Gleichgerrcht E. and Decety J. that looked into the relationship between different facets of empathy among physicians. This and other scientific research can shed light on how empathy affects different people and professions, potentially exposing you to perspectives you may not have considered.

Do you struggle to feel empathy towards others?

Cultivate mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of developing a nonjudgmental sense of awareness. It’s been practiced by human beings for thousands of years, typically through meditation. One review of research on the relationship between mindfulness and empathy states that “The capacity to be aware of what is happening in the present moment, and to observe and describe one’s own emotions, would make the appearance of these capacities more likely in relationships with others”. It also cites other studies that support this theory more directly—such as one that found that 30 minutes of meditating per day “increased the density of gray matter in the brain regions associated with empathy”.

Consider seeking the support of a therapist

While exploring one’s empathic abilities through empathy tests is possible, working with a qualified therapist or counselor may be a better way to understand and increase your sense of empathy. It can also help you learn about other topics related to empathy, like emotional contagion. They can help you polish your communication and conflict-resolution skills, for instance, and devise strategies together that can help you experience empathy increases. They may also be able to offer support if you are struggling with an overabundance of empathy (like in the cases of those who experience empathic distress.) If a mental health condition is making it difficult for you to engage with people empathetically, they may be able to offer ideas for managing your symptoms. 

Research suggests that both online and in-person therapy can offer similar benefits in many cases, which means you can typically choose the format that feels most comfortable for you. If you’re having trouble locating a provider in your area or simply prefer to engage in therapy from the comfort of your own home, online therapy may be an option to consider. With a platform like BetterHelp, for instance, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or online chat to discuss the challenges you may be facing.


Empathy is a characteristic that can make it easier for people to form healthy relationships with each other. If you’re looking to increase your levels of empathy, as natural levels may vary from individual to individual, the suggestions listed here may help.
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