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What is empathy?

Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger

A senior woman being empathetic toward a young woman.

Empathy is the ability to understand how someone else feels and see things from their point of view. Most people have some degree of natural empathy for others. 

However, empathy is more of a skill than a trait. Learning to be empathetic involves taking the time to acknowledge what other people are thinking and feeling. Developing empathy helps to promote compassion, kindness, and human connection. 

Examples of Empathy

People can express empathy in a variety of ways. Some signs of empathy include:

  • Listening to others well
  • Frequently considering how other people feel
  • Being someone that people often come to for advice
  • Feeling sadness when hearing about tragic events
  • Feeling drained after socializing with others
  • Often trying to help others

Empathy vs. Sympathy

Empathy is often confused with sympathy. Sympathy involves acknowledging how someone else is feeling from one’s own perspective. Empathy, on the other hand, involves putting yourself inside someone else’s shoes and understanding why they feel the way they do. 

When someone feels empathetic, they are experiencing the same feeling as someone else and can relate. With sympathy, someone can understand the feeling, but may not necessarily share that feeling. 

Sympathy and empathy are often at play in conversations regarding loss. If you’ve never suffered the loss of a loved one, you may not empathize with a grieving friend, but you would sympathize, understanding cognitively that such a loss would be devastating. If, however, you had lost someone you loved before, learning about a friend’s loss would likely stir up memories of your own past experience, resulting in feelings of empathy.

Compassion vs. Empathy

Compassion and empathy are very similar concepts, but they are not the same. Empathy is a general ability to understand someone else’s feelings and perspectives. Compassion involves these feelings as well but comes with the desire to help others. 

Compassion and empathy both originate from a desire to understand others. Compassion simply takes empathy a step further and puts that emotional understanding into action. Someone who is more empathetic might be more likely to show compassion and help people. 

Types of Empathy

Cognitive Empathy

Cognitive empathy involves the ability to imagine someone else’s experiences. Some examples of cognitive empathy include:

  • Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes
  • Being able to read someone’s body language and tone of voice
  • Having a good understanding of someone else’s feelings
  • Seeing things from someone else’s perspective 

Affective Empathy

Affective empathy, also referred to as emotional empathy, is the ability to share someone’s feelings. Some examples of affective empathy include:

  • Sharing emotions with someone
  • Feeling distressed when someone else does
  • Feeling motivated to offer support

Somatic Empathy

Somatic empathy involves a physical reaction to what other people are experiencing. Some examples of somatic empathy include:

  • Blushing when seeing that someone is embarrassed
  • Having stomach pain when someone else is visibly nervous
  • Feeling physical pain when someone else gets hurt

Empathy & Mental Illness

While empathy can be learned, everyone is born with varying amounts of natural empathy. The amount of empathy that someone has may correlate with certain mental health disorders. 

For example, one study1 showed a relationship between increased empathy and anxiety. Another small study linked2 low mood to high levels of empathy. On the other hand, a lack of empathy is associated with certain personality disorders.

Lack of Empathy

Someone who lacks empathy might have a difficult time forming close relationships with others and might struggle to regulate their own emotions. Certain mental health disorders may cause someone to experience a lack of empathy, including:

  • Narcissistic personality disorder: Narcissistic personality disorder involves a lack of empathy and an overexaggerated sense of self-importance. Those who have narcissistic personality disorder might still be capable of showing empathy and even compassion, but it does not come naturally, and may be used to manipulate others. 
  • Psychopathy/sociopathy: Psychopathy and sociopathy refer to a lack of empathy along with the inability to control emotions. Those who display psychopathic or sociopathic behaviors might mimic an appropriate emotional response but struggle to feel genuine empathy for others. Psychopathy and sociopathy are not clinical terms, but instead refer to different expressions of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD).
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD): Autism is a developmental disorder that causes social difficulties. People who have autism may struggle with a lack of empathy, difficulty understanding others, and decreased emotional connectedness. 
  • Machiavellianism: Machiavellianism involves manipulative traits and a lack of empathy, resulting in someone only focusing on their own interests. It is a personality trait, not a clinical mental illness. However, when paired with narcissistic personality disorder and/or antisocial personality disorder, a person with Machiavellian tendencies could pose a threat to both themselves and others.

Too Much Empathy

Too much empathy can cause emotional distress and result in an increased risk for certain mental health disorders. Too much empathy is associated with the following concerns:

  • Codependency: Someone who has too much empathy may put the needs of others above their own. This is consistent with codependency, a tendency to put others first and attempt to “fix” people. 
  • Anxiety: Those who are overly empathetic might experience more symptoms of anxiety. They may become too focused on how others are feeling and perceiving them, leading to distress. 
  • Depression: Having too much empathy can lead to feelings of depression and alienation. Those who are highly empathetic may feel easily distressed and feel pain more intensely when hearing about the suffering of others. 

Hyper-empathy

Hyper-empathy syndrome involves experiencing empathy so intensely that someone might feel others’ emotions as if they were their own. Those who have hyper-empathy syndrome might worry excessively about the pain or suffering of others and might be on high alert around other people.

Empaths & Anxiety

Empaths are those who experience high levels of empathy and seem to take on the emotions of others. For example, an empath might experience joy when seeing someone else experience happiness or sadness when seeing someone else in distress. 

Those who are empaths might struggle more with anxiety, as they have a difficult time toning down their empathy. They might experience an obsessive need to help people and might feed off of the worries of others. 

Empathy in Therapy

While certain levels of empathy occur naturally, empathy is also a skill that can be learned. Those who experience too much or too little empathy might have an underlying mental health condition that would benefit from psychotherapy. 

In therapy, someone who lacks empathy can learn skills such as self-reflection, self-compassion, and communication. Those who have too much empathy might seek therapy for help with managing negative feelings and underlying anxiety. 

Tips for Practicing Empathy

Empathy is something that can be practiced on a daily basis to promote compassion and improve relationships. The following are tips for practicing empathy:

  • Put aside your own viewpoints
  • Imagine yourself in the other person’s shoes
  • Ask more questions when communicating
  • Try to understand people when you don’t agree
  • Pay attention to social cues and body language
  • Listen intently and don’t interrupt
  • Allow yourself to be vulnerable with others 
  • Offer support when appropriate

When to Seek Help

Someone who lacks empathy may have a difficult time forming close connections with others, while someone with too much empathy may feel overwhelmed by negative feelings. 

If you are experiencing too much or too little empathy, help is available. A therapist can help determine if you might have an underlying mental health disorder causing issues with empathy and how to manage it. Find a therapist near you today.

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.