What is empathy?

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

What is

What is empathy?
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Why is empathy in short supply?

Empathy is a vital ingredient in modern life.

Empathy is described variously as, understanding another’s feelings, the ability to

identify with and understand somebody else’s feelings or difficulties or the abilities to put yourself in the other’s position. It can have to do with both cognitive understanding and emotional experience.

Empathy is considered a fundamental skill for beginning counselors to have or to develop. I looked this word up in my 1898 Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia only to find – it’s not there!

The word empathy was introduced into the English language in the year 1908.  It came from a German word which had come into use extensively in the 1870s.  There was clearly a need for a word that more accurately expressed this concept.  Originally the word empathy was closely related to sympathy but went beyond the concept of feeling sorry for someone.  Empathy came to mean a ‘felt sense” or an understanding at a deeper level.

Today this word is often used to denote the ability to understand and experience what someone else is feeling.  To really feel empathy and you needed to not only understand what the person may be thinking but what they may be feeling.

In order to develop your understanding of the skill of empathy take a look at the list below of ways to tell if someone is truly empathetic.

Empathy is seeing life through someone else’s eyes.

Empathy is not simply saying I know what you mean or I understand what you are going through.  It is that true desire to actually be able to put yourself in the other person’s position and see what they’re seeing in the way they are seeing it.

Empathy is being genuinely curious about others.

People who are high in empathy are genuinely curious about other people’s lives and what it would be like to live life the way that person lives.

Empathy wants to understand not judge.

To have empathy you have to suspend judgment.  The people who are high in empathy make the effort to understand the other person, their life situations, and what they have gone through.  The goal of empathy is to experience what it would be like to be that other person.

Empathy values the other person’s experience.

Having empathy places a high value on other people and their experiences.  People from other backgrounds can have important contributions to make to our understanding of the world we live in.  An empathetic person does not look for ways to make the other person more like themselves.  They look for ways in which that other person’s thinking and behavior make sense, given their life experiences.

Empathy is a mirror that reflects what is inside us.

As you seek to practice empathy for others you are likely to discover that it says a lot about you.  Looking and listening to other people’s life experiences evokes emotions deep within ourselves.  Much of what we may be feeling about someone else reflects what we would be feeling in that situation.  Deep empathy moves beyond our own experience and attempts to experience things from the others point of view.

Empathy understands feelings as well as facts.

Empathy is about more than simply understand the facts and the situations of someone existence.  The highest form of empathy is to seek to understand how someone feels.  This goes beyond thief understand of facts of someone’s life, to how that person interprets those facts and the feelings those situations result in.

Have you developed your skills for experiencing empathy?

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.


2 thoughts on “What is empathy?

  1. Empathy is a very important skill naturally or developed as a therapist. Due to my intrinsic ability to empathise unfortunitly it created transference and counter transference that has affected now my work


    • Thanks for that comment Vick. In my view empathy is the ability to see things from some from someone else’s point of view. Therapists need to do a lot of work on themselves to recognize when the client is relating to us as if we were someone from their past, that’s called transference. The countertransference part is when we put our stuff on the client. Either one of those things will keep the therapist from seeing the client the way they really are. I recommend to therapists in training that they need to continue to work on these issues.


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