How can I empathize
May 9, 2006 12:40 PM   Subscribe

How can I be more empathetic?

The main problem is I don't seem to understand exactly what empathy is, and whether there is any real difference between that and sympathy (why aren't condolences "our empathies"?). I've been told before that I don't empathize very well, so I want to understand this better (so at least I have a framework for figuring out my problem) and work on it.
posted by rolypolyman to Human Relations (26 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Sympathy is having a feeling for someone (usually understanding or sadness or somesuch) and empathy is actually feeling that person's feelings.
posted by xmutex at 12:52 PM on May 9, 2006

Empathy comes from the ability to listen to and identify with other peoples experiences and feelings, as well as sharing your own in an honest and straight forward manner.

A lack of empathy is often caused by self-centeredness or self obsession and an inability to think of or consider other peoples feelings and experiences.
posted by clubfoote at 12:52 PM on May 9, 2006

Sympathy is "wow, that sucks." Empathy is getting someone something they need before they ask for it.

Empathy is basically putting yourself in another person's shoes – not just understanding what they're going through, but feeling it with them and understanding it.

If you get the "you're not empathetic" criticism often, it might be that you don't break from your own perspective or you heavily filter things through your own experience, rather than trying to understand the other person's mindset and see what situations feel and look like inside their eyes.

To increase empathy? Listen to people without allowing yourself to speak except to agree and ask clarifying questions. Read personal essays of people very different from yourself.
posted by Gucky at 12:52 PM on May 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

sympathy is feeling sorry for someone. empathy is feeling their pain, being able to identify with what they're going through. anyone can have sympathy; empathy requires experience similar to what the other person is going through, or at least an attempt to understand that experience.

for example: i live in new orleans, where many people lost everything they owned due to Katrina. if you've never been through a flood or similar natural disaster, you can still feel sympathy for those people - but only people who have lived through similar experiences- for example, Hurricane Andrew in florida - can truly empathize with our situation.

consequently - the only way to empathize well is to at least imagine, as well as you can, what it would be like to actually be in a certain situation, and how you would want to be treated, how it must feel to be in that position. Put yourself in the other person's shoes, try to feel what they must be feeling.
posted by ab3 at 12:54 PM on May 9, 2006

Empathy means you can identify what somebody else is feeling. Sympathy, broadly, is feeling sorrow or pity for them.

Oftentimes they are the same thing, but not always. Here's a nice example of when empathy would not be sympathy: "Identifying oneself completely with an object or person, sometimes even to the point of responding physically, as when, watching a baseball player swing at a pitch, one feels one's own muscles flex."

Condolences are sympathy--"I feel for you". Not exactly the same thing as empathy--"I know what you're feeling. I've felt that too."

Say you're with a friend who's going to their car, and there's a ticket on their windshield. Your friend gets really angry and pissed and can't believe they have to pay some stupid fine. You might empathize with them if you've felt angry from a parking ticket in the past. Now perhaps they also perfectly well deserved the ticket--so you don't feel sorry for them--but you do understand their indignation.

It's a subtle difference. Many people confuse the two words* which just makes it all the more confusing.

* Perhaps me, even. I wouldn't be surprised if someone later in the thread tells me I got it all wrong!
posted by Khalad at 12:56 PM on May 9, 2006

My understanding is that sympathy is feeling genuinely sorry for someone (compassion), while empathy is actually feeling what the other person feels, as much as that is possible. I know when I see a friend crying I start crying too, and I think this is fairly common among women. It's as if I take on a little of his/her pain. But how you develop something like that - gosh, that's a hard one. I'm not sure that you need to, as long as you let the people who are important to you know you care for them, and you listen to them without judgement.
posted by Evangeline at 1:00 PM on May 9, 2006

I think "not having empathy" comes from assuming that everyone does (or should) react to things the same way you do. If someone's upset about something that wouldn't necessarily upset you, do you listen to them and try to be there for them anyway? Or do you judge them for not being "strong enough" or "smart enough" or "rational enough" to conquer their emotions?

I think you develop empathy by developing your own emotional maturity and range, by understanding there's not a "right" way to respond to what the world throws at you and by realizing that friends aren't around to "fix things" but to listen and be supportive, even when they don't necessarily agree with your choices.

Which isn't to say you should never voice your concerns about your friends' choices, but just that you should focus on what they're *actually* going through rather than what you think they *should* be going through. And you do that by really listening.
posted by occhiblu at 1:07 PM on May 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

These definitions are my own, but are, I think, consistent with general definitions:

I display sympathy when I feel something because someone else is feeling it. When I feel badly because my best friend's dog died, his loss is turned into a loss of mine as well, even if the loss is not the same.

I display empathy when I understand that a person is feeling a certain thing, when I broaden my own outlook to include not just the possiblity but the acceptance of someone else's situation.

The former requires of me a connection to the person such that their situation affects me directly; the latter requires the (sometimes more difficult) recognition that even when someone may have put themselves into a given situation, or made specific bad choices, acknowledging their feelings about it does not condone or authorize the situation in general.

So when my friend tells me that their delinquent bill was sent to a collection agency, I may think that their actions and choices were stupid, that they not only should pay but that they should also suffer some consequence for letting the bill slide in the first place, while not dismissing (and indeed addressing with compassion) how shitty, scared and depressed they must feel to be in the situation that they are in. That's empathy. (On preview, I am indeed suggesting that that empathy is a genuine sentiment, I do care about how they are feeling, even as I have a separate set of opinions about how the situation developed.)

As far as being more empathic: I think that people who are not empathic often: 1) confuse accepting the feelings someone has about a situation with condoning the actions of the person in question, 2) want to solve the problem without granting that there might be elements of the situation that they do not understand, 3) make larger value judgements about the person at a time when they could be listening instead, and 4) conveniently forget that there are probably things they've done in the past that haven't turned out as they might have expected or hoped. Finding a way to work around these kinds of responses will make you a lot more empathetic.

(And, you know, if none of that describes you, I'm sorry to have made assumptions about your position. I'm sure that it's difficult to not be empathetic and I imagine that you struggle with it a lot. Some of the best people I know aren't empathic, but your desire to change says a lot about what a good person you are, and I'm sure that if people will just listen to you things will start to go better in the future.)
posted by OmieWise at 1:07 PM on May 9, 2006

Empathy is the ability to understanding how a particular experience or situation affects a person's thoughts and feelings, without feeling the same way themselves and losing the advantage of being outside the problem. The advantage of being outside a problem is that we can see a broader picture, and are more likely to come up with solutions.

Sympathy is different because you feel what the other person is feeling and can become wrapped up in the problem. That's why doctors don't operate on loved ones - they're too close to the problem and too emotionally engaged to think objectively.

An example: a close friend of mine is going through seperation and divorce right now. Because I have been through that whole awful experience before, I can empathize with him and offers advice and solutions. There's is no way in heck I'm going to sympathize with him and feel as bummed out as he is however, (once is enought thank you), but I can relate and look back on the kodak moments of my life and tell him what he can expect and that he will make it.
posted by rinkjustice at 1:12 PM on May 9, 2006

Wow, I weight these words almost entirely differently (and oppositely) than do most people here.

em·pa·thy Pronunciation (mp-th)
1. Identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings, and motives. See Synonyms at pity.
2. The attribution of one's own feelings to an object.
[en-2 + -pathy (translation of German Einfühlung).] American Heritage 4th edition.

sym·pa·thy Pronunciation (smp-th)
n. pl. sym·pa·thies
a. A relationship or an affinity between people or things in which whatever affects one correspondingly affects the other.
b. Mutual understanding or affection arising from this relationship or affinity.
a. The act or power of sharing the feelings of another.
b. A feeling or an expression of pity or sorrow for the distress of another; compassion or commiseration. Often used in the plural. See Synonyms at pity.
3. Harmonious agreement; accord: He is in sympathy with their beliefs.
4. A feeling of loyalty; allegiance. Often used in the plural: His sympathies lie with his family. Am Heritage 4th.

Just to reiterate my definitions, which I still think accord with these from the dictionary:

Empathy is something you can feel by broadening your perspective to recognize, acknowledge and understand another's feelings even if you do not share them.

Sympathy is something that you can only feel if you share the feelings (to some degree) with the person with whom you sympathize.
posted by OmieWise at 1:13 PM on May 9, 2006

I agree with OmieWise. The "sym" in "sympathy" means "together"; you're going through the emotional experience together. Empathy implies a broad understanding of how the person is feeling, without necessarily experiencing the emotion right then and there for yourself.
posted by occhiblu at 1:18 PM on May 9, 2006

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Sympathy exists when the feelings or emotions of one person give rise to similar feelings in another person, creating a state of shared feeling. In common usage, sympathy is usually the sharing of unhappiness or suffering, but it can also refer to sharing other (positive) emotions as well.

The psychological state of sympathy is closely linked with that of empathy, but is not identical to it. Empathy refers to the ability to perceive and directly experientially feel another person's emotions as they feel them, but makes no statement as to how they are viewed. Sympathy, by contrast, implies a degree of equal feeling, that is, the sympathiser views the matter similarly to how the person themselves does. It thus implies concern, or care or a wish to alleviate negative feelings others are experiencing.

Thus it is possible to be:

* Empathetic but not sympathetic, by internally experiencing their feeling but not being motivated to alleviating action as a result (eg, a lust killer who is aroused by his victim's fear, or a con artist who knows how his "mark" feels but uses it to manipulate not support).

* Sympathetic but not empathetic by realising (perhaps cognitively) someone is upset and wanting to alleviate that, but not experiencing their sense of upset directly and internally as an emotional state within themselves (eg, a person at a help desk who sees another in distress, does not feel distress themselves, but tries to find what is wrong and help them anyway).
posted by martinrebas at 1:24 PM on May 9, 2006

Thanks... I understand the definition very clearly now... there's no need for further definitions and we can drop the sympathy issue.

I'm back to my original question: How can I be more empathetic? This is where I need help, or some suggestions. I realize that's akin to "how can I feel like they feel", but I'll get more out of a discussion than any definitive answer.
posted by rolypolyman at 1:26 PM on May 9, 2006

OTOH, a comment on the Wikipedia talk page says:

This is not correct: "...It thus implies concern, or care or a wish to alleviate negative feelings others are experiencing."

the wish to alleviate negative feelings relates to 'Compassion' and maybe even 'Empathy', but not 'Sympathy'. Refer to most common dictionaries for the correct definition of Sympathy, there is NO implied 'wish to alleviate negative feelings others are experiencing' with Sympathy.

Sympathy relates to harmony and agreement of feelings, there are no inclinations or any implication towards alleviating the feelings others are experiencing. If this was the case, this would be showing or indicating a slight disharmony to them, and thus are incorrectly labled as sympathetic.

posted by martinrebas at 1:27 PM on May 9, 2006

The goal should be to get inside another person's head, without imposing your own judgement on what's going on there.

Reading good, character-driven novels. Atwood, Updike, Fitzgerald, Lahiri, and many many other critically acclaimed authors write complex characters and let you get inside their heads to see how the world looks through their eyes. (I'm sure there are memoirs that do the same thing, but I think there's something special about non-fiction, because not only do you get the characters' views, but you realize that someone actually understood human behavior well enough to *create* these characters out of thin air.)

Pet ownership, if it's something that interests you. Trying to figure out what my cat wants or needs when she's unable to verbalize it can be an exercise in empathy. (I imagine having a baby would be similar but even more profound on that count.)

Exercising empathy daily. At least once a day, think to yourself "What can I do right now that would make this person's life easier?" and do it. If you hurt someone, think "What did I do that made this person's life harder, and why did it hurt them?" Practice putting yourself in their shoes, even if it's just the UPS guy or the woman struggling to get through a cafe door with a stroller.

Meditation or yoga, if it's something that appeals to you. A lot of the focus is learning to accept your own emotions and body without judging it, and to accept other people's limitations without judging them.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is being recommended by Google. Never done it, but the more I hear about it, the more I'm convinced it's meditation for overly rational people :-)

Asking questions rather than giving answers. Someone mentioned this above. When a friend, family member, or someone else you like says something you don't agree with or don't understand, ask them to explain rather than telling them they're wrong. Remember that you like the person for a reason, so it's not only possible but also probable that what they're saying does make sense and is a good idea, and that you're rushing to judgment before understanding it fully. Strive to understand it fully.

Assuming good intentions. I think it's hard to empathize with others while assuming the world is populated by idiots or people who are out to get you, stupid, or obtuse. If you find yourself making these kinds of judgments often (if you're saying "What an asshole," "What is wrong with people," "Why is everyone else such an idiot" on a daily basis), stop. Start concocting stories that would explain their behavior -- maybe the guy who cut you off is rushing and inattentive because he's nervous about a presentation he's making; maybe your boss is being bitchy because her new baby kept her up all night -- or realizing that you probably annoy people daily, too, so it all evens out eventually and it's not that big a deal :-)
posted by occhiblu at 1:49 PM on May 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

Read a good book as often as you can.
posted by Mean Mr. Bucket at 1:49 PM on May 9, 2006

Maybe you could give some example situations?
posted by kensanway at 1:52 PM on May 9, 2006

This is a fantastic, challenging question rolypolyman. It's like asking how can I become a great artist. I'm tempted to answer, "You have to be born one." If you're not already empathic, I suspect it will be tough to become empathic. But I'm hopeful that it's possible.

At a nuts-and-bolts level, being empathic means that -- as Evangeline pointed out -- seeing someone cry makes you cry (or seeing someone smile makes you smile). Since that doesn't happen with you, I'm curious about what DOES make you cry or smile. Maybe the issue isn't empathy (or maybe empathy is a side-trace from the real issue). Is it possible that you just don't have easy access to your feelings? If you don't cry easily when YOU'RE sad, you're not going to cry easily when someone else is sad.

On the other hand, it's possible that you feel (and express) tons of sadness, happiness, fear, etc. -- but only about things that happen to you directly. I think if we're going to help you, we need to know as much as you can tell us about how you're wired emotionally.
posted by grumblebee at 2:15 PM on May 9, 2006

By the way, I used to share your problem somewhat. I DO have access to my feelings, and if I understand that someone is sad, it will trigger sadness in me. But I have (undiagnosed) Aspergers, which means I have trouble reading facial expressions, tones of voice, and body language. So I might simply not KNOW that someone is sad.

If you share this problem, you CAN improve. People like us just have to study and learn what comes naturally to other people. Since I had a huge desire to compensate for my deficit, I've spent decades as an amateur psychologist. I've made it my life mission to study people and what makes them tick. And I'm pretty confident that no one can tell the difference between me and a "normal" person.

A normal person sees a smile and instantly gets that the person is happy; I see the smile, spend a fraction of a second longer than normal interpreting it, and then get that the person is happy -- and then I feel empathy.

I think that people here are giving similar advice when they suggest that you "read a good book." For me, they key was reading tons of character-based books and watching tons of character-based movies. "Chick Lit" is gold. But I also read psychology, neurology and self-help books.

I work in the theatre, too. You might consider taking an acting class. When you act, you have to become someone else. You're forced to think about his motivations, his fears and his desires. Great tools for building empathy.
posted by grumblebee at 2:22 PM on May 9, 2006

The person who said you don't empathize well -- I wonder if they might mean you don't show that you care. If someone tells you their troubles, and you say, "That sounds very difficult," you will be credited with empathy, whether or not you actually feel their pain. [Sympathy, empathy, who cares what they actually mean to say. They want you to express some kind of understanding of their emotions.]

Many people assume they know what's going on in your mind based on things that you say. Someone might tell you about a problem they're having. If you suggest a solution, you might be accused of not being sympathetic. But if you say, "Man, that's terrible," they'll feel more like you're on their side.

When someone tells you about a problem, you might actually be thinking "Wow, I'm sorry for you." But if you say nothing, or say anything other than the equivalent of "How awful," nobody's going to know you've had the kind of reaction they're hoping for.
posted by wryly at 2:25 PM on May 9, 2006

There's some great advice here. I would add: ask yourself why you DON'T identify strongly with other people's emotional experiences.

Many of us refrain from empathy because it's scary to get inside someone else's emotional world. For example, we don't like pain. We don't want pain. If we can create distance between ourselves and the person experiencing pain, if we can disassociate ourselves, if we can focus on the ways that we're different instead of the ways that we're the same, we can avoid experiencing their pain with them.

Even if the other person is experiencing a positive emotion, like joy or amusement or enthusiasm, you still have to be willing to surrender a certain amount of control over yourself in order to experience their emotions with them.

So my guess is that some part of you is purposefully creating distance. You're walling yourself off from other people's emotion. There's nothing crazy or unnatural about that, but if this is indeed what's going on, you need to recognize your own mindset in order to be able to change it. Just adopting some new behaviors won't work if your underlying mindset, your underlying drive to stay separated from others, is intact.
posted by equipoise at 3:38 PM on May 9, 2006

I suspect lack of empathy is endemic in our culture, and explains why a lot of people behave solely self-interestedly, despite the dangers and/or harm to others when they do so.
posted by five fresh fish at 3:40 PM on May 9, 2006

Why is it that everyone in this thread assumes that we all KNOW each other's feelings? Is everyone posting here really that confident in their ability to understand what's going on in someone else's head?
posted by dagnyscott at 7:10 PM on May 9, 2006

Why is it that everyone in this thread assumes that we all KNOW each other's feelings?

We don't. But we empathise with them.
posted by Decani at 7:25 PM on May 9, 2006

Exercise your imagination. When you are thinking about someone, practice stopping whatever your thoughts are and starting over by thinking about the particular details of their situation and how you would be feeling and what your concerns would be in their shoes. You don't have to be "right." This doesn't allow anyone to magically know what this other person is actually feeling. It takes practice. It's a process that opens your mind.

(You can do it the other way around, too. Especially if you need to work on your imagination. If someone cuts me off on the highway, I imagine they have horrible stomach cramps and explosive diarrhea; they're trying to get to a bathroom. Then they pass a rest area exit. Hmmm. They probably don't. But maybe their dog is really ill and they're very worried and hurrying to the vet. I don't spend too much time on those sorts of people, it's just a quick example.)

And when it comes to people you really care about - Educate yourself. Speaking as someone with a chronic illness, I am really very touched by the people who respond to it by saying "wow, that would be very hard for me to cope with," whereas most healthy people actually say fairly insensitive things like "huh. i'm tired a lot. maybe i have it, too." If somebody actually goes to the trouble to read an article or two about my illness, wow that's amazing to me! (and rare) I don't forget that.

and lastly, i am getting a lot from Pema Chodron's "Start Where You Are : A Guide to Compassionate Living." i highly recommend it.
posted by overanxious ducksqueezer at 12:15 AM on May 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

oh, and to add to what equipoise is saying, and what Pema Chodron talks about in the book I recommended, you need to feel your own pain and sadness and anger and all the rest, and have compassion for yourself. compassion for others, empathizing with their pain and sadness, will follow. especially if you are working towards that goal.
posted by overanxious ducksqueezer at 12:20 AM on May 10, 2006

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