What is empathy? Main characteristics and its use in therapy

What is empathy? Main characteristics and its use in therapy

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With Empathy is understood as the cognitive ability to perceive and share feelings or experiences of another person, within a common context, and imagine what it would be like to find ourselves in that person's place.


  • 1 What is Empathy?
  • 2 Basic forms of Empathy according to Daniel Batson
  • 3 How Empathy is Generated
  • 4 Empathy in therapy: Carl Rogers and the person-centered approach

What is Empathy?

Over time empathy has been described in different ways, some even metaphorically as: "Put on each other's shoes" or "see through their eyes"; It would be like having the ability to experience life as the other does, understanding their thoughts, feelings, emotions and meanings of reality.

It means feeling pain or pleasure as the other feels it, perceiving things in the same way, but never losing the recognition that it is a "as if", since we are not the same person. If this "as if" is lost, then we enter an unrealistic or recommendable state of identification.

Basic forms of Empathy according to Daniel Batson

The Social Psychologist Daniel Batson He proposed eight different forms of “empathy”, which are related to each other, but do not constitute several aspects of it:

  1. Know the internal status of the other person, including your thoughts and feelings. This can provide us with arguments to feel kindness towards the other, without this being sufficient, nor indispensable to generate an altruistic motivation. This means that you can be aware of what the other thinks or feels, and remain indifferent to your situation.
  2. Motor and neuronal imitation: the fact of perceiving someone under a certain situation, leads our neuronal system to adopt an analog state to theirs, which generates a body and facial mimicry accompanied by sensations similar to those of the other person.
  3. The emotional resonance: It is to feel exactly how another person feels, whether it is a feeling of happiness or sadness. Although it is impossible to live exactly the same experience as someone, we can feel similar emotions.
  4. Intuitively project yourself in the situation of the other person. To be affected by what happens to someone else, it is not necessary to imagine all the details of your experience, just know that you suffer.
  5. Create a very clear representation of the other person's feelings thanks to what she tells us, to what we observe and to our knowledge about that person, about her values ​​and her aspirations. Imagine how we could think and feel in each other's place.
  6. Imagine what we would feel if we were in the place of the other person, with our own character, our aspirations and our worldview.
  7. The suffering for empathy: what we feel when we witness or evoke the suffering of another person. This form of empathy can cause us to ignore the situation instead of assuming an altruistic attitude. Actually, Batson does not talk about worrying about the other person, or putting himself in his place, but about a personal anxiety generated by the other person. Unfortunately, this feeling of suffering does not necessarily generate a kindness reaction or an appropriate response to the person who is suffering. If the resonance with the suffering of the other person generates personal suffering, we must turn our attention to that person and reactivate our ability to express kindness and altruistic love.
  8. Empathetic kindness, which consists in becoming aware of the needs of others and feeling the sincere desire to help them. According to Daniel Batson, empathic kindness is the only response that is directed towards others and not towards ourselves, which is necessary and sufficient to produce an altruistic motivation.

Daniel Batson states that the first six forms of empathy can contribute to the creation of a altruistic motivation, but none of them guarantees that such motivation really arises, at most they constitute its indispensable conditions. The seventh form, that of suffering for empathy is clearly against altruism. Only the last way, that is empathic kindness is necessary and sufficient for altruistic motivation to be born in us and incite us to action.

How Empathy is Generated

For be nice with another person several conditions are required. One is to enter the world of the other's private perception and be sensitive, moment by moment, of the feelings that flow in him or her, whether fear, anger, pain or confusion or whatever he is experiencing. It means that in some way you live temporarily in the life of the other, moving inwardly with delicacy and without making judgments; understanding the conscious meanings of this person, but not trying to discover the most unconscious or deep feelings, as this would make it too threatening. It includes communication about your understanding of the world, consulting about your way of thinking and being guided by the answers you receive. It is about becoming a trusted partner so that the other lets us somehow enter his inner world.

Being this way with the other person means that for a moment, we set aside our own views and values ​​in order to enter the other person's world without prejudice. In a sense, this can only be done when the person feels confident enough and recognizes that he will not lose himself in the strange world of the other, and that he can return to his own world whenever he wishes.

As we see this description, it is clear that being empathetic is something more complex, demanding, and strong than it may seem at first, but it is also something subtle and soft.

Empathy in therapy: Carl Rogers and the person-centered approach

For him humanist psychologist Carl Rogers This is an essential process in the person-centered therapy, Empathy is the most important quality in all forms of therapeutic listening. That means having to enter the world of the person who comes for therapy (usually called the client) so that person feels accepted and understood. Two things are important in this process:

  1. That empathy is accurate, and
  2. Let the client know that we are empathizing with him or her.

Both are skills that can be learned, and make a big difference in the relationship between the client and the counselor or therapist.

The second quality is authenticity. If empathy is about listening to the client, with authenticity it is about listening to ourselves, if we really tune in and are aware of everything that is going on inside us. It means being open to our own experiences, without denying them or taking them away from us. Authenticity is even more difficult than empathy, since it implies a lot of self-knowledge, which is really only obtained by going through a self-therapy in a complete and profound way, to get to show us in a sincere and genuine way.

The third quality is non-possessive acceptance. This means that the client may feel received in a human way, that he does not feel threatened in any way. In this atmosphere of trust, true trust can develop, and the person may feel able to open up to their own experiences and their own feelings.

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