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In Simple Words: What Empathy Is and How It Works

Recently, the interest in the concept of "empathy" has significantly increased: whereas previously this term was used only in scientific circles by philosophers and psychologists, it can now be found in both artistic and journalistic literature, as well as in everyday conversation. This increase in popularity is because empathy plays a huge role in interpersonal communication and is of utmost importance for absolutely everyone.

Photo: Julia Kuderova ft. Midjourney

However, despite the introduction of this scientific term into the masses, many people still do not fully realize what it actually means: the overwhelming majority consider empathy a synonym for sympathy, but this is not quite the case. To dispel this widespread misconception, we have prepared this article, from which you will learn about the origin and development of the term "empathy," what levels of empathy exist, what high-level empathetic abilities contain, and how to assess and improve them.

The phenomenon of empathy has been studied for a long time: initially, it was considered within the framework of philosophy and had a completely different name, then it was studied within the framework of scientific psychology, and only many years later an integrative approach appeared, according to which the concept of empathy is interpreted to this day.

Empathy as a cognitive phenomenon

The phenomenon that is now referred to as empathy originally emerged in the realm of philosophy. German philosopher Theodor Lipps pondered the question of how we can understand objects and phenomena in our surroundings, particularly the consciousness of others if we only have our own consciousness as a reference. He concluded that when we observe someone else's state or action, a sort of imitation of reality arises in our consciousness that elicits sensations, resulting in the emotions or feelings that we attribute to the object we are observing. In simpler terms, Theodor Lipps realized that we can only understand others through our own feelings and that these feelings become both the tool and source of our understanding. He referred to this phenomenon as “Einfühlung,” which translates in English as “empathy.”

German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey shared Lipps' views and concluded that since psychology is a science of the human psyche and, in particular, of human experiences, the method of psychology should be nothing less than "empathy," i.e., empathy is, in psychology, putting oneself in another person's shoes to understand and "share" their thoughts and feelings. This idea served as the basis for the consideration of "empathy" within the framework of psychology.

Empathy as a communication phenomenon

The German psychiatrist Karl Jaspers singled out "empathy" as one of the main methods of phenomenological psychiatry; after him, the American psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut also developed Dilthey's idea in his work. Soon interest in "feeling" in scientific circles practically came to naught, but theories of sympathy began to develop rapidly, according to which feelings connect people in the process of interaction: sympathy, care, pity, friendliness, altruism, etc. The term "sympathy" served as a prototype of empathy, and the Anglo-American psychologist Edward Titchener translated the word Einfühlung as "empathy" by analogy with it: as sympathy is "with feelings," then empathy is "in feelings".

The American psychologist Carl Rogers soon outlined the value of empathic abilities in psychotherapeutic work and in the personal development of the individual as such. Because of the development of ideas about empathy as a phenomenon of cognition, on the one hand, and as communication, on the other, it became a dual concept.

An Integrative Approach to Empathy

Because of considering empathy as a cognitive and relational phenomenon, the scientific understanding of empathy has reached a qualitatively new level: empathy began to be perceived as the ability to comprehend the emotional state of others and to respond in an emotional response.

More specifically, empathy is, in simple terms, a person's ability:

  • To read (recognize or identify) the emotional state of others;

  • Identify that state with his or her own personal feelings and emotions;

  • To give an emotional response to the feelings and emotions received, directed for the benefit of the person whose emotional state has been read.

As we can see, the essence of empathy is to understand another person by concentrating on his emotions and feelings: to understand a person, one must analyze not what he thinks, says or does, but what he feels. Only by concentrating on inner feelings rather than outer manifestations can we really understand each other and help and support each other.

Let's explain the pattern by which empathy "unfolds:

  1. Our own feelings help us, by analogy, to understand how the other person feels;

  2. Understanding another person's feelings allows us to understand him or her (get to know his or her true nature);

  3. Deep understanding of the person enables us to act in a way that supports and helps them.

Empathy, however, can be two-fold and can be used both to help others and to benefit oneself:

  • Humanistic empathy is manifested using one's emotions and feelings arising from an awareness of another person's disadvantage or well-being to support them. This manifests itself in the form of joy, compassion, empathy, pity, etc.

  • Egocentric empathy consists in the fact that the person uses the information received about the emotional state of the other person to assess his or her own well-being. For example, awareness of another's joy can lead a person to the understanding that he or she is unhappy, and awareness of another's fear can lead to one's own peace of mind.

inherent features of empathy are altruistic forms of response and a generally positive attitude in communication with people. Therefore, cases in which a person uses the ability to understand the emotions of others to achieve his or her own selfish ends are not empathy.

Empathy can be accomplished in two basic ways:

  • Emotional empathy involves the use of projection and imitation mechanisms (a person projects a situation onto themselves and tries to feel it "on their own skin").

  • Cognitive empathy occurs through intellectual processes (a person makes an analogy and comparison mentally, trying to logically understand what the other person is feeling).

When studying the phenomenon of empathy, it is important to pay attention to its two main forms:

  • empathy allows experiencing emotions and experiencing one's own feelings about the emotional states of others;

  • Empathy implies the subject experiencing the emotional states of another by identifying himself or herself with him or her.

Thus, as we said in the introduction of our article, empathy is not synonymous with the word "sympathy," which is only one of its forms.

Mechanisms of the emergence and development of empathy

Science explains the empathy phenomenon by the presence of mirror neuron networks, thanks to which the observation of other people's actions and states in our own brain excites the departments responsible for these actions or feelings of these states. Empathy is based on a person's understanding of emotions and feelings, so its main development occurs in the preschool period: children begin to actively empathize with other people from the age of three, and at the age of 4–6 years, the basic empathy is already manifested in relation not only to loved ones but to all people in general.

Already at the age of five, the child can not only feel but also reproduce the emotional experiences of others and relate them to certain actions. At the same age, children begin distinguishing emotions by expressive signs (facial expressions, pantomime, etc.), with verbal functions playing a special role in recognition and understanding. It is the negative emotions that a child recognizes and understands most clearly.

During the preschool period, children also develop an understanding of more complex emotions related to the development of feelings of another order, which include aesthetic, intellectual, practical, and higher (moral) feelings. The child then begins to understand that emotions can sometimes be ambivalent, that is, a person can experience two conflicting feelings simultaneously, and that emotions are not always due to external factors alone, but are sometimes influenced by internal, subjective factors.

At the preschool age, empathy manifests itself in a rather bright, one might even say an acute, form. And it is practically always embodied in the child's actions - if he or she is happy for someone else, he or she can rush to embrace him or her, if someone is jealous, he or she will definitely complain, etc.

emotional learning of the child has serious difficulties; moreover, its result itself is much less stable than learning motor and sensory skills. However, unstable manifestations of emotional responsiveness are a sign of the presence of a pathology of varying degrees of severity.

Social factors play a special role in the formation of empathy. The sociality of emotions is that they are acquired through interaction with other people and then form the basis of the child's perception of social norms and values and "emotional standards" that for the rest of his or her life almost completely determine how he or she treats himself or herself, interacts with other people, and behaves in the community. For example, a lack of understanding of social emotions can lead to aggressive behavior or increased anxiety levels that persist in adulthood.

Researchers identify two main causes that lead to emotional disturbances and decrease empathy – unfavorable relationships with others and the child's own world of experiences. There are also several serious pathologies, the main signs of which are the complete absence of empathy and/or its disturbance: autism, psychopathy, and narcissistic personality disorder. Empathy disorder is not only found in the clinical picture of the above-mentioned disorders, but in them, it is most pronounced and is one of the main symptoms. Nevertheless, even for people who have the ability to empathy from birth, its level varies considerably.


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