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What is empathy?

empathy em·pa·thy (ěm’pə-thē) n.
Direct identification with, understanding of, and vicarious experience of another person’s situation, feelings, and motives.

When you empathize with someone you are imagining what it would be like to be in his or her place.

If you have ever seen someone get hurt or be insulted and you thought, “Ouch!”, then you have experienced empathy. When someone says, “I know how you feel,” they are expressing empathy.

Empathy is fundamental to intimate relationships. When someone expresses empathy for what we are feeling we tend to feel closer to that person. When there is no one who empathizes with us, we can feel very isolated and alone.

Empathy can be tricky, though. It is not always easy to know what someone else is actually experiencing.

Let’s look at an example of this. You go to lunch with a friend you haven’t seen for a while. At one point you see an ad for a movie you have been waiting for, and you tell your friend you are “dying to see” that movie. Your friend bursts into tears and walks out of the room without any explanation. You have no idea what just happened, and it is extremely difficult to empathize with your friend, who as far as you can tell just did something bizarre. You might even be angry at your friend for ruining your lunch.

The next day you discover that your friend’s brother recently died, and you remember saying you were “dying to see” that movie. Suddenly you realize that you accidentally reminded your friend about the death of her brother, and you instantly understand what your friend was feeling and why.

But wait – do you understand what your friend was feeling? What if the last time your friend saw her brother they had a huge fight? Maybe your friend is not only feeling sad, but horribly guilty. What if your friend and her brother were involved in a real estate deal that will now fall apart and leave your friend bankrupt? Perhaps your friend is feeling fear as well as sadness. Or maybe your friend hated her brother and was glad he died, but their family has disowned her because of it; then she is upset about losing her family, not about losing her brother.

It is impossible to know the totality of another person’s experience, no matter how well you know them. This should not prevent you from empathizing with others, but it is helpful to keep it in mind. When you empathize with someone you are imagining their experience, so don’t confuse their actual experience with your guess about their experience. Often what feels most empathetic to someone is to ask them how they feel and then just listen carefully to what they say.

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