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Empathy, what is it? How do we use it right now?

What is Empathy?

Merriam-Webster’s definition: “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.” Huh? In other words, empathy is being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to understand another person’s thoughts, emotions, and experience, from their perspective – not yours.

It is easy for most of us to empathize with people who are similar to us; we understand them because we have a lot in common. But empathy for people from different backgrounds and life experiences, is harder. Sometimes it’s even difficult with people in your own family – the world has changed a lot in the last 20 years. Think of that Uncle whose political opinions are VERY different than yours, and claims any differing opinion is ignorant and 100% wrong. Being able to imagine yourself as him, with his life experience, having his thoughts and feelings, is empathy. Think of how much better family gatherings might be if you used your empathy super-power to decrease the outrage you normally feel when you only see from your perspective (which is obviously the right one)!

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What’s the Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy?

Sympathy generally means being able to feel compassion, sorrow, or pity for another person’s hardships. You feel bad for them, from your own perspective, but you don’t understand what it is like to be in their shoes. Empathy is the ability to get inside, or feel, that person’s emotional reality or experience.




-Gloria Steinem

Am I Empathetic?

As humans, we are wired for empathy, but, as with most things, our ability varies based on life experiences, and from person to person. If you are curious about where you are on the empathy spectrum, check out the Empathy Quotient scale: This scale is used to assess social impairment in disorders like Autism, but it is also applicable as a casual measure of empathy in general.

Why is Empathy Important?

Being empathetic means being able to understand why people do what they do, and from that understanding, tolerance can grow. Tolerance and acceptance of the differences among us, while also recognizing our commonalties, are essential building blocks of healthy relationships, good mental health, and can even inspire social change. Some examples of situations where empathy is helpful:

  • When you want to understand someone better
  • When you find yourself stuck in an argument, at an impasse
  • When you find you can’t connect emotionally with someone
  • When you want to control your anger, or manage your emotions
  • When you want to challenge your prejudices (we all have them!)

For more info on why empathy is important, and how to exercise your empathy abilities check out:

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