Understanding Empathy: Definition, Psychology, Practice and Application

Updated July 01, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Laura Angers

Empathy is one of the most challenging and important topics in psychology.

If you develop your empathy, you can help others get through difficult times and better understand why people may be being difficult themselves. If you don’t develop your empathy, it can make it more difficult for you to build relationships, get along with others, and make decisions with social contexts.

Here, we’ll talk about what empathy is, and you can work on building your empathy. We’ll also talk about exercises and applications for empathy in your everyday life.

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What Is Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to perceive, understand, and feel emotions that other people are feeling. This may sound like a superpower. But it isn’t mind reading – that’s telepathy.

The Science Of Empathy

A lot of people think that empathy is sentimental hogwash. And, even in psychology, it was largely treated that way. However, in recent years, studies on the brain and human behavioral development have taught us a lot about how we develop and experience empathy at the neurological level.

Scientists now understand that when people witness other people experiencing an emotion, the parts of the viewers’ brains that would register that emotion in themselves are activated. In other words, to some extent, we feel what that person is feeling.

This experience is impacted by a number of factors, however. For one thing, we need to understand what we’re seeing in that other person. This is one of the reasons that children, in particular, don’t have the empathy that other people do – they haven’t experienced events themselves in a way that lets them understand the significance of events in other people.

In other cases, an individual may have sufficient life experience to understand another’s emotion, but they fail to recognize or perceive it. But we’ll talk more about that in a moment. The important takeaway is that empathy is a thing that we passively develop to some degree but that we can also consciously nurture and promote.

Breaking Down The Components Of Empathy

Perceiving another’s emotions has to do with cues that they may give when they feel a certain way. These can be different for everyone, so getting to know a person can be an important part of empathizing with them.

The remaining two components of empathy – understanding others’ emotions and feeling those emotions yourself – is the most difficult for many people. This is where another important psychology word comes into play, and that’s sympathy. Many people confuse the two, so let’s be careful:

Sympathy is understanding through shared emotional experience. In other words, you need to have experienced something yourself to be sympathetic to someone else.

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Sympathy is not a substitute for empathy. However, if you are having difficulty empathizing with someone, sympathy can be a good place to start. Ask yourself how you might feel in their position and then shift the focus off of yourself and onto how they are feeling in their actual situation.

Why Is Empathy Important?

Developing empathy is important for a number of reasons. Some of them are social, and some of them are selfish.

For one thing, understanding the emotions of others helps us to build stronger relationships with other people. Relationships are, in part, a way to support others and to find support for ourselves. People who struggle with empathy have difficulty comforting friends when they need comfort and celebrating with friends when they want to celebrate. This robs both members of the relationship.

Further, if you punch “empathy” into your favorite search engine – maybe that’s how you found this article – you may notice that many of the articles come from business and economic publications. That’s because empathy is important in our professional relationships, as well as our relationships. Being able to understand what someone else is going through can help us say the right thing or not say the wrong thing in any number of social settings.

Why Is Empathy So Hard?

Because there are three main components to empathy, there are at least as many barriers to empathy.

While perceiving emotions may come naturally to some, it’s very difficult for others. This is particularly true for people with Autism Spectrum Disorders who have difficulty noticing other people’s emotional cues or showing their own emotions.

Understanding the emotions of others can be difficult because talking about emotions can be difficult. It involves a special skill called “emotional literacy.” Developing this skill helps you to build a framework for talking about and understanding emotions – your, and those of other people.

Feeling another person’s emotions can be difficult if that person is in a situation that you have never experienced, for example, if your friend has lost a parent or moved into a new house. You have never experienced that loss or that excitement.

Feeling another person’s emotions can also be difficult because we are used to focusing on ourselves. And that’s okay. It’s even good. Focusing on ourselves helps to make sure that our needs are met. After all, it’s difficult to help others if we have needs ourselves. However, to help others, it’s often important to know how to step into their shoes.

Developing Empathy

To some people, empathy seems to come naturally. To others, it may seem entirely out of reach. Developing empathy takes time and effort, but it is something that anyone can do. Here are some of the best ways to work on developing empathy.

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Practice Open And Happy Relationships

One of the best ways to develop empathy is to spend time dealing with other people and their emotions. One of the best ways to do that is to practice open and happy relationships. Talk with friends and family about emotions, yours and theirs.

This practice puts you in working contact with other peoples’ emotions and lets you cultivate a better understanding of how other people show emotion. If you don’t recognize what emotion someone is feeling by their face or behavior, ask them how their feeling. This also helps to build emotional literacy.

Read Literature

A 2013 study found that reading fiction helps us to develop empathy. How? By putting us in the head of other characters.

When we interact with real people, we are an active part of the interaction. As mentioned above, this can lead us to focus on our relationship with that person rather than that person’s experiences of their life events. When we read fiction, we’re not in the picture at all, which limits this problem.

Reading fiction is also a good way to put us into situations that we haven’t encountered in our real lives. They can also help us see how different people deal with the same event from different perspectives in a way that is difficult or impossible in our own lives and experiences.

For example, J.K. Rowling’s 2012 novel A Casual Vacancy follows a cast of characters in a rural town after a member of the municipal government passes away unexpectedly. The huge cast of characters from diverse age ranges, ethnicities, income levels and political ideologies deal with death, relationships, poverty, drug abuse, and coming of age.

The study was initially very popular but has also drawn critics. As a 2016 Atlantic article put it, “Reading Literature Won’t Give You Superpowers.” Just like sympathy is a starting point rather than a shortcut to empathy, fiction can do a lot of things, but it can’t replicate real human relationships.

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a practice that involves taking the time to acknowledge and understand your thoughts and feelings in a deeper way.

To begin practicing mindfulness, sit or lie down comfortably for a few minutes with no external distractions like music. Try to clear your mind by focusing on your breath. Chances are, this won’t last very long. When a thought distracts you, take note of it and go back to trying to clear your mind. Over time, this will make you more aware of your thoughts and feelings throughout the day.

Yes, empathy is about other people and their thoughts and feelings. However, as we have discussed, the best access to other peoples’ thoughts and feelings comes through a deeper understanding of our own human experience.

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Finding Help

For some people, reading articles like this one may be enough to help you develop empathy by making you more mindful of how you interact with others.

For others, however, not being able to understand or relate to the emotions of others can be a symptom of emotional barriers in your own life. If this is the case, meeting with a therapist or counselor can be a good way to improve your own mental and emotional health while also learning how to be a better friend, coworker, parent, or spouse.

To learn more about developing and practicing empathy and how this can help you develop and strengthen relationships in your life, consider meeting with a counselor over a private and secure internet connection with BetterHelp.

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