Ph.D. Defintion of Empathy

Definition of Empathy

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A Definition of Empathy

Much of my website is about human connection and closeness, and empathy is the critical ingredient that makes much of that work. In this article I will start with a definition of empathy, and then I will spend some time digging into the workings of the thing, and why it is so central to being human.

Merriam Webster' definition nails it pretty well:

“Empathy: 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”

In other words, "You get me.  You get my experience without me fully telling you." 

And Digging A Little Deeper Into the Meaning of Empathy

The definition above captures something crucial about empathy, the element of understanding the experience of another without being told, or at least without being fully told. And how do I come to understand more about your experience than you have actually told me?  It works more or less like this: In addition to whatever you tell me in words, there is all that you are telling me in your tone of voice, your facial expression and your body language. A lot of what you convey through these other channels tells me about emotion, about what you are feeling and how strongly. Without me really trying to, the emotions that you are showing stir up some of the same emotion in me. If this works properly, I find myself feeling some of your pain, feeling some of your joy, sharing your emotional state in a way that leaves you feeling that someone is with you in what you are going through.

This feeling element often gets triggered automatically when we are around someone who is feeling strong emotion. If someone is laughing uproariously, or crying bitterly, we will feel some of their emotion without even trying. In addition to this automatic experience, there is a part of empathy that you could call an imagination exercise. This is a part of empathy that we are in control of, and a part that we can even practice: If I want to understand what it is like to be you, I can take all the information I have, and then use my imagination to imagine what it is like to be you. This is connected to the standard parental question, “how would you feel if someone did that to you?” To practice empathy, simply imagine what someone else is going through, and especially imagine how they must feel. The feeling part is crucial. It is nice to have someone know what we are going through. It is even more precious to have someone feel what we are going through, feel our pain and feel our joy.

Singing the Praises of Empathy

As I have been writing my website articles about closeness and relationships and communication, I keep being drawn back to ideas about empathy, like a moth to a flame.  A flame is probably a good metaphor, because the warmth of a relationship comes when I am feeling what you are feeling, when we share a moment of feeling the same thing together.  Let me take a moment here to sing the praises of empathy, the thing itself.

Empathy seems to be a large part of what allows us to feel close to one another. Empathy is that process that allows me to feel what you are going through, to feel some emotion in response to your emotion. If you are telling me about your painful experience, with emotion in your voice, and possibly tears in your eyes, if I care about you, I will be feeling pain too. You will hear in my voice and see in my eyes that I am sad in response to your sadness. At that point you will feel that I am feeling some of what you are feeling.  That part is crucial, because when you can feel that I am sad about what you are going through, you won’t feel alone in your sadness anymore. You will feel cared about, and feel that someone is in there with you, feeling something with you. 

This also works for happiness and joy. If you tell me some piece of great news, and my face lights up because I’m happy for you, you will find yourself even happier, and suddely the happiness is an experience that we are sharing. Both sorrows and pleasures seem to get deeper and richer when someone else gets them, and lets their emotions be touched by your emotions.

At the other end of the spectrum, think about the bleakness of what happens without empathy.  If there is no one that feels or understands what we are going through, then we are each alone inside our own experience. We then go though our joys and our sorrows and everything else in a state where it feels like no one else knows or cares what we are going through. We humans actually want empathy and treasure empathy so much that we will often imagine the next time that we hope to get some. The last time that you had a joy or a sorrow or a frustration, and found yourself inwardly saying, “I can’t wait to tell so and so,” you were actually imagining getting some empathy. You are alone, but imagining the next time when someone will understand and feel something about what you are going through. Your boss was a complete jerk; you experienced it alone; and then you took the edge off your frustration by imagining telling your best friend, and having you both marvel and get pissed at what a complete jerk that guy is. You are fantasizing about empathy, in a good way.  Even in the moment, before your friend knows anything about your boss’s latest jerkish behavior, the fantasy of their being outraged on your behalf feels really good. So, empathy is such great stuff that we actually go around fantasizing about it.

I Have To Let Myself Feel What You Feel

Empathy is all about me feeling some of what you are feeling, until you can feel that I'm feeling something with you.  A really big part of whether this goes right or wrong is tied to whether I am willing and able to feel something with you.  Let me talk about when that happens and when it doesn't happen. 

It doesn't happen if I am too tangled up with my own emotions.  Let's say we just got home, and you are feeling kind of lousy, but haven't told me yet.  Now imagine that I am stressed out.  My day is heavily on my mind; I'm trying to figure out something for tomorrow; and I'm just tired.  You are giving off clues that you aren't doing so great, perhaps with the stoop of your shoulders, or a sigh, or the fact that you are more quiet than usual.  Don't I know you well enough to know what those things mean?  But I'm all caught up in my own stuff, my own stress, my own emotion, my own fatigue.  You need something from me, and I'm missing every single clue.  For me to do proper empathy, I would have to make room in my mind, and make room in my emotions, to hold you in mind and to feel some of what you are feeling.  If I fail at empathy right then, it isn't necessarily because I suck at empathy.  It may be that I have no room left for it right now, no bandwidth left for it, until I have cleared out some of my own stuff.  That means that empathy, and failures of empathy, are partly a matter of timing.  All of us are better at empathy at some moments, and worse at other moments. 

And even in a good moment, our defenses can get in the way.  If you are feeling bad, I have to be willing to feel bad with you.  If you are feeling confused or helpless, I have to be willing to feel those things with you.  If you are in a dark place, I need to be willing to climb into a dark place with you.  Basically, I need to be "willing to go there."  This is tricky.  Some people are better at going into dark places than others, and any of us might be more able to do that at some times than others. 

And then there is the question of "male defenses." 

Do Men Suck At Empathy?


No, wait. There is more to it than that.

Men tend to do fine at joining you in your happiness, your enthusiasm, or your anger.  We tend to be a little more reluctant to join you in your sadness, your fear, your confusion, or your helplessness.  After all, to a greater or lesser degree, we men were socialized to be manly.  For conventional gender roles, being sad or confused aren't manly ways to be. 

Let me refer you to my article on male defenses against vulnerability.

The heart of the matter is that men typically grow up being socialized not to be vulnerable, and that often gets in the way of men simply being sad with someone else who is sad. The more useful answer is that some men are much better at empathy than others, and that fortunately empathy is something that one can get better at with practice.  The basic lesson for men is, allow yourself to go there.  Allow yourself to be sad or scared with your loved one.  Avoid the temptation to flee to higher ground by giving advice or by telling your loved one why she shouldn't feel that way. 

Empathy Involves A Temporary Joining Or Merging Of Me And You

The experience of empathy can and should feel as if two people are going from being separate to joining with each other. A moment ago we were each going through our own experience separately, and now I am joining you in your experience. I stop thinking about my experience, and I imagine yours; I feel some of what you are feeling; I show you that I get what you are going through, and I care. Compared to a few moments ago, we are now thinking about the same thing, feeling more or less the same as each other. I am now holding in mind what you have in mind; I am feeling a versionn of what you are feeling.  We are experiencing this thing together.  

What we have done is a kind of merging, a kind of joining. I am not you, but we are sharing an experience. What I am describing here is simply another way of describing the magic of empathy. We went from a state of more separateness to one of more connection, and now we are sharing an experience. We are both feeling your sadness, or we are both feeling my joy.  Or we could be sharing any experience.  We could be sharing curiosity and interest. “I read this great article; it was really interesting.” “Wow, that is really interesting.”

What I am getting at with this description is the idea that there in moments of strong empathy two people feel less separate and more merged, more joined, more as if we are sharing an experience and a set of perceptions. Those moments are precious. And they are also temporary.  As much as we treasure the moments of closeness and shared experience, before long one of us has to do some work, or get some sleep.  So, it is natural that these moments come and go. What we want is for a couple to get good at making them happen.

How to Get Better At Empathy

Let me offer a roadmap for improving empathy skills, improving the chances that you will have empathic moments and connected moments with those you love.

We all spend too much of our time with our defenses up, and it becomes a habit that we use even around someone we love. To get better at empathy with your loved one, practice asking questions or answering questions in a way that makes the conversation go a little deeper.

Failures of Empathy

There is a lot that could be said about why and how empathy goes wrong, about the moments when we fail to feel understood or cared about by those we love, and the times when we fail to make them feel understood or cared about. I’ll say a few important things here, while noting that there is lots more to say on the topic.

Yes, some people are better at empathy than others, but it is also important to note that we all have our moments when we do better with empathy, and our moments when we fail. What seems to happen and why does it happen? Empathy done right means that I manage to set aside my own experience and open myself up to yours, make myself available to understand you and sympathize with you. I could easily fail at that in any moment when I am just not available to set myself aside and focus on you. As I mentioned above, If I am too stressed out, or tired out, or too caught up in my own stuff, then I may not manage to set my own experience aside and really join you in yours. That may feel to you as if I don’t care. In reality, I may partly care, but be too tangled up with my own stuff to really engage, or to really show you that I care.

When couples are doing badly with each other, they can get into a cycle of chronic failures of empathy. Some couple find themselves frustrated and disappointed with each other, thinking, “we used to be pretty good at this. We each used to manage to make the other feel cared about. Now we seem to suck at it. What happened?”

There are some classic things that seem to go wrong when a couple isn’t doing well with each other. One part of it, simply put, is that their defenses go up. If I’ve been feeling less cared about lately, I will be less likely to show you or tell you that I’m feeling bad.

Or it may seem to me that you are always feeling bad about the same thing. I’m tired of hearing that you don’t like your work. I wish you’d get a new job so I can stop hearing the same things about this one. Or perhaps you are depressed. I care, but I have started to feel helpless, kind of like you feel, and nothing seems to do any good. I’ve started to back away from getting into your experience with you, because it feels lousy and your experience is always the same. Or perhaps you run anxious and I don’t. You’re worried about that? And that? And that too? I try to put myself in your shoes, but I come up with – nothing. I’m still not worried about that. I just wish you’d stop worrying. And you can tell my sympathy isn’t there, so you stop telling me about it, and resent me because you feel like I don’t care.

As you can see, I find it useful to think in terms of failures of empathy, of moments when empathy goes wrong. As I noted, sometimes empathy fails for a temporary reason, perhaps when I am worn out or stressed out. For those times, it is best if we can cut each other some slack, even if disappointed, and try again. Closeness involves timing, and the timing won’t always be right.

And as I described above, empathy is a skill that can be practiced, and it is possible for an individual or a couple to get better and having successful empathic connections.

And then there are the times when something seems to be repeatedly or chronically going wrong with the empathic connection between two people, going wrong with their sense of being understood and cared about by their partner. This can get going as a vicious circle, and sometimes the vicious circle can be interrupted and reversed. It is certainly a puzzle worth solving, if possible, since this experience is such an important part of what we want from our love relationships.


Copyright 2020, Paul Hutchinson, Ph.D.

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