What Empathy Isn’t

Empathy plays a crucial role in healthy relationships—from our relationships with our partners to those with friends, family and coworkers. Many people oversimplify empathy as equating to kindness or compassion, however this understanding of empathy leaves out some key components that, when practiced correctly, lead to understanding and deep connection.

The simple definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person, but just because we believe we are understanding someone doesn’t mean we actually are. If our partner or friend or coworker doesn’t feel seen and understood by us, we aren’t being effectively empathetic. We may instead be projecting our own experience onto the other person or trying to solve their problem instead of just listening.

When someone shares a struggle, fear or vulnerability with us, there are several types of responses we may think are empathic, but are really not. These include:

Storytelling. Sometimes when someone shares a story about themselves, we want to respond with our own story about a similar experience. However, this isn’t really an empathic way to understand someone else’s world. Instead, it shifts the focus of the conversation to ourselves.

Diagnosing. If we think we understand why a person is struggling, we may want to “diagnose” them with the cause of their suffering. An example might be “You’re working too much” or “Maybe you have allergies.” This might be a kind response, but it isn’t necessarily an empathic one because it focuses on the problem instead of the other person’s experience.

Pity. Pity is a type of sympathetic sorrow we feel when encountering the sorrow or suffering of others, and it is different from empathy. When experiencing pity, we typically feel sorry for someone from a place of distance or superiority. When experiencing empathy, we are focused on the other person’s experience and doing our best to align with their feelings.

Fixing. When we care about someone, it is natural to try to find solutions for their problems. However, often when our loved ones come to us in pain, they want understanding and empathy more than they want someone to fix their issue. In some cases, an individual may be completely closed off to possible solutions if they don’t feel fully heard and understood.

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