What Is Empathy, And How Can You Strengthen Your Sense Of It?

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant
Updated December 15, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Empathy is a natural way for humans to relate to each other. So why do some people seem to be more in tune with this sense than others? How does it differ from sympathy? If you’re trying to strengthen your sense of empathy, where should you start? Read on for answers to all of the above.

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Cultivate Your Sense Of Empathy To Connect With Others

What Is The Definition Of Empathy?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner”. In other words, it’s the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes and imagine how they must feel in a given situation. A sense of empathy can guide your own decision-making in some cases and is often an important component of strong interpersonal relationships. Empathy is also a key component of emotional intelligence.

Empathy Vs. Sympathy

These two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but there’s actually a subtle difference between empathy and sympathy. One explanation is that sympathy refers to feeling someone’s pain when you actually feel it as well, whereas empathy involves being able to imagine how someone else might be feeling even if you don’t have that emotion at the time. 

Under this explanation, sympathy is feeling sad for a friend who is sad after experiencing a loss, whereas empathy is imagining or understanding how someone might be suffering after experiencing a loss. While the nuanced differences can be unclear in some situations, empathy is typically the concept people refer to as being important for social functioning and relationships.

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The Three Forms Of Empathy

Empathy is often referred to as a general term, but according to a 2018 paper, it can actually be broken down into three distinct types. 

  1. Affective Empathy

This type refers to being able to identify with others or put yourself in their shoes. It’s the feelings-based ability to recognize suffering in another and even be moved to show them support and care. Because it’s emotions-based, however, the paper cited above notes that it can lead to an unequal distribution of caring and/or burnout over time.

An example of affective empathy would be feeling concern for a friend who is going through a difficult divorce and potentially offering them comfort and support as well. You understand why they are upset because you’re putting yourself in their position. If the phenomenon of “emotional contagion” (also called “emotional empathy”) takes hold, you may even actually experience some of the pain they’re feeling.

  1. Cognitive Empathy

Although all types of empathy are rooted in hardwired care for the well-being of others, this type is the most logic-based. It refers to the ability to share in the experience of someone’s situation without actually feeling their pain, enabling the empathetic individual to maintain their sense of self and be realistic about the change they can enact. It’s helpful for people who work in caring professions since it allows them to keep space between their work and themselves instead of burning out or feeling helpless in the face of suffering.

An example of cognitive empathy would be understanding why your friend gets enjoyment out of a certain hobby, even if you don’t personally find it enjoyable. Or, it could look like understanding why the villains in a book or movie made the choices they did, even if you don’t agree with them. Cognitive empathy is all about understanding another person’s situation even if you don’t necessarily identify with it personally.

  1. Somatic Empathy

The paper cited above defines this type as “responding to pain and sorrow in others by physically experiencing the same pain through proximity to them”, a phenomenon made possible by the brain’s mirror neurons. It can be the first step in triggering mitigating action in response to the pain witnessed or felt. As the paper cited above notes: “The somatic response can be the kindling that starts the fire of empathy” if the person takes action as a result of feeling it. 

While somatic empathy is a rarer type, there are a few examples of it that you may be familiar with. For instance, a twin might feel physical pain when their sibling is injured, or the partner of someone who is experiencing labor pains might experience some physical pain themselves.

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Cultivate Your Sense Of Empathy To Connect With Others

Can Empathy Be Increased?

A sense of empathy and compassion may come more easily to some people than others. One study found that genetics account for 10% of the variation in natural empathy levels among people. Where the other 90% comes from is still being researched, but hormones and social conditioning likely each play a role. However, it is true that a person can increase their own capacity for empathy, even if their natural levels are a bit lower. According to one researcher in the field, simply believing that empathy is a mutable trait can bolster a person’s capacity for feeling it. In addition to adopting this growth mindset, here are a few other ways to improve your sense of empathy.

Consume More Stories

Whether it’s reading a work of fiction or watching a play, exposing yourself to stories where the characters face challenges that you have not personally faced can increase your capacity for empathy. Engaging with these fictional stories may allow us to exercise our “social cognitive abilities”, according to a 2018 study.

Put Yourself In A New Context

Spending time with people who are different from you and in places that are unfamiliar can help you increase your sense of empathy, too. This could take the form of consuming media from diverse backgrounds or participating in cultures that are different from your own. Paying careful attention in these situations can help you take in the perspectives of others and be moved by their experiences, which is an ability you can then begin to apply in other situations.

Identify Similarities

Another method for increasing empathy is to focus on what you have in common with others—even those you disagree with or feel distant from.

For instance, relating to a colleague about your common hometown or your kids of similar ages can help you see past your different personalities or views on workplace politics. You might also open yourself to situations where you’re working toward a common goal with people who are different from you. A 2008 study found that simply being placed on the same work team for an activity can increase cooperation and positive feelings among team mates due to the development of an in-group effect.

Be Willing To Learn

Finally, simply being open to learning about people and their experiences is a powerful way to increase your ability to feel empathy. Judging others simply for being different than you won’t be helpful in this pursuit. Instead, being curious, asking questions, and having an open mind will make you far more likely to be able to identify common ground with someone. 

Speak With A Therapist

Meeting with a mental health professional is another way you may be able to improve your sense of empathy. They can offer you a different perspective on how you normally approach new people and situations. If you’re suppressing your emotions in general due to past experiences of trauma, for example, they can help you work through that so you can be more open to others. If your patterns of thinking about yourself and others contain cognitive distortions—perhaps due to a mental health condition like depression—they can help you learn to recognize and shift those. In other words, they can offer a safe, nonjudgmental space where you can openly discuss and work through any challenges you may be facing. 

If you prefer to receive the support of a mental health professional from the comfort of your own home, online therapy is an option. With a platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or chat. A study from 2021 even found that patients perceived their therapists as “significantly more empathetic and supportive in the remote setting”. This finding is important because previous research has found that “client empathetic perception measures” can predict good treatment outcomes. That means you may be able to benefit from your therapist’s sense of empathy even as you increase your own capacity for it. 

Takeaway

Empathy allows us to relate to people and to take care of each other. If you’d like to increase your capacity for feeling empathy, the strategies listed here may be able to help.

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