FAQ: What is empathy?

Image of woman's hands holding a young man's hand to comfort him; on grey background

"Empathy" is a widely misunderstood concept. Understanding it properly is the first step to transforming your relationships with other people and yourself. 

Empathy is not the same as sympathy. 

Sympathy is a feeling you have in relation to someone else. You feel sympathy when you feel the same feeling as the other person.

For example, suppose your friend's mother dies, and you feel sad. You have sympathy for him. Of course, this example assumes that your friend is grieving. If your friend feels guilty after losing his mother, you would only have sympathy if you, too, felt guilt.

Similarly, if your co-worker was just chewed out in front of the team, whether you have sympathy for her depends on how she feels. If she is angry, and you are, too, then you feel sympathy for her. But suppose she is indifferent to the attack or contemptuous of it. If you feel anger on her behalf, you do not have sympathy for her.

When you feel sympathy for another, you share his or her drama. If he's upset, you're upset. If she's happy, you're happy. You're on the same emotional roller coaster.  This can be a heady experience, creating instant rapport. However, because sympathy is based on feelings, it is not under your direct control. As soon as one person's emotions diverge from the other's, the bond is broken. That disconnect often creates another round of drama, this time involving antagonists angry at one another.

Empathy is different.

Empathy is an awareness of the deep rational value that is motivating a person's thoughts, feelings, and actions at the moment. It is awareness of the values at stake for the person. 

You do not need to share the feelings to have empathy for another. You do not need to agree on the top value at stake. You do not need to believe that the other person's action is rational. You just need an awareness of the rational value that is the root cause of his or her motivation. By a rational value, I mean a value that serves the needs of life.

You may be puzzled about how an irrational response could be traced back to a rational value.  This is possible because all motivation rests on a causal chain starting with the needs of life. Ultimately, a rational value is at the root of even an irrational reaction, if you trace back far enough.

For example, the other day I was ticked off by how someone dried a pot. It was a wildly disproportionate emotional response, which had little to do with the pot or the person drying it. It turns out I was craving quiet time, to think about an issue that was bothering me. The dish-drying incident had interrupted a cleaning routine I was using to create a quiet space for myself. 

Getting angry about how someone dried a pot was not rational. But I couldn't sort out what was going on until I traced the causal chain all the way back to the need for quiet. Then I could understand my crazy reaction, apologize for it, and take the quiet time I needed. Looking for the deep rational value at stake is what shifts you to a rational perspective.

Moralists often confuse giving empathy with psychologizing.  They see it as whitewashing irrational behavior by finding some rational element in the motivation. But that is not the purpose of giving yourself or someone else empathy. The purpose is to reveal solid rational ground for moving forward. When you identify a deep rational value that truly matters in the circumstances, especially one that has been obscured by irrational motivation, you radically shift the situation. You open up desire for the rational value and turn the spotlight on how to achieve it. You see the irrational motivation for what it is — a distorted perspective.

This is why giving another person empathy is so powerful in conversation. If you name the deep rational value at stake for the other person, his perspective will change instantly. He will become focused on that value. He will conclude that you understand him, but more importantly, that you respect him. If he is distressed about his own emotional reactions, your focusing on rational values will help him both to step aside from self-doubt and to focus on what really matters.

Giving yourself empathy when you are distressed is essential to a constructive approach. Self-criticism can feed a vicious cycle of self-doubt that sabotages everything it touches. In contrast, identifying the rational values at stake sets up a virtuous cycle that dissolves old baggage and grows motivation to pursue challenging goals.

I learned about the difference between empathy and sympathy from Marshall Rosenberg, but as usual, this explanation is distinctively mine, as I have integrated his ideas with the Objectivist ethics. Some people object that the dictionary definition of empathy does not match this analysis, which it doesn't. The dictionary definition of empathy is typically indistinguishable from the definition of sympathy. But we need a distinct concept for this objective response to emotion. An emotion is an alert to values that appear to be at stake. As such, emotions should neither be judged nor wallowed in. Rather, emotions need to be investigated, objectively, to identify the values that underlie them. These values can then be factored into a rational assessment of what to do. 

If you want to foster rational behavior in others, learn how to give them empathy, not sympathy, when they are distressed.

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