What Is the Definition Of Empathy And Why Does Empathy Matter?

Updated August 28, 2020

Empathy has become a popular subject in recent years. As people try to understand and help others, they want to be empathetic to them. Yet, many people do not really know what empathy is. What’s more, they might not know how to give and receive empathy. Here is a definition of empathy, some ways empathy can influence your life, and how to give and receive empathy.

Definition of Empathy

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Sometimes, people define empathy as “putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. “While that definition of empathy might give you a basic understanding of the term, perhaps a more detailed definition might be helpful.

The American Psychological Association Dictionary defines empathy as “understanding a person from his or her frame of reference rather than one’s own, or vicariously experiencing that person’s feelings, perceptions, and thoughts.”

This definition goes on to explain that a desire to help is not necessarily a part of the definition of empathy. You can show empathy to someone without assisting him or her in any practical way. You might decide to help them, but that is not an essential part of empathy.

Types of Empathy

Some experts recognize three different types of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate. Others point to just two kinds of empathy, including affective empathy and cognitive perspective-taking. All the kinds of empathy can happen at once, or you may only experience one type.

Cognitive Empathy

Cognitive empathy refers to thinking processes called perspective taking. Perspective taking is a part of the definition of empathy. It means that you think about a situation from a different viewpoint than your own. To do this, you have to imagine what the situation is like from someone else’s perspective. Rather than thinking about how you might feel in that situation, you picture what it would be like if you were the other person, with their beliefs, emotional health, relationships, and personal history. In short, you see things from their perspective.

Emotional Empathy

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Emotional empathy, also called affective empathy, is a subjective experience in which you pick up the emotions of others and feel them yourself. For example, if they show their sadness, you feel sad, too, even though you did not feel sad before. You share in their feelings.

Compassionate Empathy

Not all experts use the term compassionate empathy. However, it might seem clear by a recent definition of compassion that empathy is a part of it. One scientific review offered a compassion definition that includes five elements:

  1. Recognizing suffering
  2. Understanding that everyone suffers
  3. Feeling for the person who is suffering
  4. Allowing yourself to feel uncomfortable feelings that result
  5. Doing something to alleviate their suffering

This last element is where compassionate empathy is the most different from the two main recognized empathy types. It means not only feel empathy with someone, but you do something active to help, unlike the other two types, in which you do not necessarily do anything. Yet, any kind of empathy can be beneficial at times.

Why Empathy Matters

Empathy matters because it can have a powerful impact on your life and the lives of others. It is also vital because lacking it can be a sign of a mental disorder. Finally, therapists use empathy to understand and help their clients.

Empathy Helps Build Relationships

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Showing and receiving empathy can help you build better relationships. When you see things from your loved one’s point of view, several things can happen.

  • When your partner perceives you are empathetic, they are more satisfied with the relationship, according to one study.
  • Seeing a conflict from the other person’s perspective might make it easier to forgive them.
  • When you both show empathy for each other, you can feel more connected and build a stronger bond.

How Showing Empathy Helps Others

Showing empathy to someone else can help him or her in many ways. Emotional empathy can help them feel that they are not alone. When you show them the cognitive type of empathy, they might feel more understood and valued. In addition, when you show them compassion, you might help them solve their practical problems.

How Empathy Helps You

When you can take another person’s perspective, it can help you – not just as a part of a couple or to help someone out but for you as an individual. People who learn to be more empathetic can often increase their happiness and improve their mental health. Even at your job, you might find that cognitively engaging in empathy toward your boss and coworkers gives you better insight into what you need to do to succeed.

How to Show Empathy

Many people think that they have no control over their own empathy. They assume that either they feel it or they do not, and they cannot change that. To a certain extent, that is true with emotional empathy. Affective empathy is a primitive feeling state that you cannot consciously manipulate. However, paying attention to the other person more may bring up those feelings.

As for the thinking side of empathy, you can learn and practice showing empathy whenever you like. To become more empathetic, it helps to develop the right habits. Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine suggests six ways you can build to increase your empathy:

  1. Be more curious about and interested in people you do not know.
  2. Forget about your prejudices and look for things you have in common.
  3. Try to experience being in someone else’s life, like going to their church or spending some time in a place they go often.
  4. Be present with them in your conversations, practicing active listening, and opening up to them honestly.
  5. Practice empathy in the larger world.
  6. Develop your imagination as much as you do can, imagining people and scenarios that are drastically different from you and your own.

Is There a Downside to Empathy?

Although empathy can be beneficial in many situations, there are times when affective empathy, especially over-empathizing, can become a negative thing. For example, a nurse who is too caught up feeling their patient’s pain day after day may become emotionally exhausted very quickly. They do need to practice cognitive empathy, though, to understand and help their patient better.

Another way empathy can be problematic is if you feel empathy too much for people who hurt you repeatedly. This over-empathizing could lead you to stay in a bad or even abusive relationship as you forgive them each time they attack you.

Finally, sometimes people do not want you to feel their pain. Therefore, again, emotional empathy might not always be helpful. Engaging in empathetic thinking can help you, but the other person does not always want to know what you are thinking about it. Even compassionate empathy can cause problems if the other person wants to solve their problems independently, or you guess wrong about their suffering.

Empathy and Mental Health

When you or someone you know lacks empathy, it might mean that there is a mental disorder involved.


Psychopathy is characterized in part by a lack of empathy as well as a lack of guilt and remorse. If you know someone who is psychopathic, you might also notice that they have superficial charm, are fearless, tend to violate social norms, are very selfish, and take no responsibility for their actions.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

People with narcissistic personality disorder tend to have very little emotional empathy for others. However, as one study concluded, they do not wholly lack cognitive empathy. In other words, they can imagine what others are feeling, but they do not tend to share their feelings.

Autism Spectrum Disorders

People who have autism spectrum disorders sometimes do not have the ability to be empathetic. However, as one study discovered, the problem in autism is that they have a hard time knowing how the other person thinks rather than an inability to feel another is suffering.

Child Abuse

Parents who abuse their children tend to have less empathy for them than those who do not. Even in the case of crying infants, mothers who lack empathy are more likely to abuse their babies. However, when it comes to emotional empathy, one study showed that mothers at high risk for abusing shared their baby’s feelings more often. If the baby seemed angry, they became angry, too.

Empathy in Psychotherapy

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Empathy can play a major role in therapy. In counseling, your therapist’s empathy toward you can provide a level of understanding and support you might not be getting anywhere else. While they might not share in your feelings, at least not very often, they might often think empathetically to see things from your perspective, so they know how to help you best.

Your counselor might also help you learn to be more empathetic. They might talk to you about the definition of empathy. In addition, they might help you practice it by role-playing. In this exercise, you pretend you are the other person, and you respond the way you imagine they would react. This helps you understand what is happening more clearly. Once you understand the other person’s perspective, you might feel less hurt by what they did in some cases, or you might get a better idea of how to deal with them.

If you are having problems showing empathy, not receiving empathy from others, or just needing someone to understand what you are going through, you might benefit from talking with a counselor. You can seek help from a local therapist or a spiritual counselor. Alternatively, you can speak to an empathetic counselor at BetterHelp for convenient online therapy. Your therapist can help you understand and practice empathy, and they can show you the empathy you need to resolve any mental health issues you might be experiencing. When you make empathy a priority, you can live more fully, and often more happily.

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