The true meaning of empathy

Rita Hagen

Do you know the difference between empathy and sympathy?

According to Dr. Brene Brown, sympathy is seeing someone in a deep hole, but staying on higher ground and speaking to them from above and trying to put a silver lining on their situation instead of acknowledging his pain. Empathy is acknowledging someone’s feelings, going down the hole with them, sitting next to them, and connecting with them sincerely. You acknowledge their struggle without minimizing it.

Simply put, she says, “Empathy is just about listening, holding space, withholding judgement, connecting emotionally, and communicating that incredibly healing message that you’re not alone.”

According to psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman, there are three components of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate. Cognitive: Simply knowing how the other person is feeling and what they might be thinking. Imagine yourself in their place. Emotional: you feel with the person, almost because their feelings are contagious. Compassionate: Not only do you understand and feel for the person, but you are also driven to help if needed.

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So why am I taking the time to share all of this with you? Simply this – we are becoming a society without empathy. We cannot see another person’s pain or perspective or share their feelings. Empathy doesn’t come naturally to many people, and you have to practice empathy, but the more you do, the easier it gets. Without empathy, we end up with everyone only being able to see their own point of view and unable to understand/feel for anyone else. Empathy can also allow us to feel happy vicariously from sharing the joy of others. To feel heard and understood, and to be able to do both, is a human need.

What are we doing? The old adage… putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is a good place to start.

Why is someone so attached to a particular subject? You need to watch how other people live, read books about people from different backgrounds, volunteer at local shelters, meals on wheels, or other community programs. Listen carefully, don’t try to solve their problem, and while you may not have experienced what is happening to them, try to imagine if you have.

Hospice Alliance is hosting its 9th annual Ring and Remember service at the Kemper Center.



Finally, acknowledge your biases which are usually centered on race, gender, age or other visible characteristics. They can hinder our ability to empathize with others because they cause false perceptions, and they make us less able to empathize with people from different backgrounds or experiences. Once you become more aware of your unconscious biases, you become more aware of yourself and others…creating empathy.

“The quality I would most like to magnify is empathy. It brings us together in a peaceful and loving state. – Stephen Hawking.

Rita Hagen is Executive Director of Hospice Alliance.

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