About Empathy

"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did,
but people will never forget how you made them feel."

Maya Angelou

A helper's empathic connection with other's suffering can lead to Vicarious Traumatisation.

Neurological basis of Empathy and its link to VT

Pearlman and McKay's definition of VT (2008) highlights this feeling of commitment or responsibility to helping someone who is hurt, as crucial to VT. So, the risk to helpers of VT comes from the combination of a helper's Compassionate Empathy and the physiological changes generated in them by their Emotional Empathy.

There is also a short video on the basis for empathy in human beings and this looks at how it works within our bodies and the fundamental role empathy plays in what we know about Vicarious traumatisation.

Empathy is a feeling that most people recognise and believe they understand

The reality though, is that what many believe to be empathy is actually sympathy. Some people even consider empathy to be a feeling that can be switched 'on' or 'off' when they choose and 'used' when they so desire.

The concept of what we call empathy may well have been first framed by the German word 'Einfühlung', which in the 19th century, translated to 'knowing.' Today, the Oxford English dictionary translation has replaced 'knowing' with 'empathy.'

In 1903, the Philosopher Theodor Lipps called it "feeling one's way into the experience of another", and the Philosopher, Martin Buber, described an empathic relationship as an "I-thou" relationship (1984). He distinguished this from the I-It relationship, where the other person remains secondary to our own wants, needs or plans.

Buber's distinction helps us to understand the difference between empathy and sympathy: where empathy is feeling with someone in their trauma or suffering (I-thou) and sympathy is feeling pity or sorrow for them (I-It). You can find the link to a short video by the brilliant Brené Brown on this page that highlights the differences between sympathy and empathy.

Video: Brown, B., Sympathy vs Empathy - Brené Brown

About Empathy

Most people are born with a natural capacity for empathy

'Feeling with' others increases our connection with others, which ultimately enhances our chances of survival. However, research suggests that a small number of people e.g. Psychopaths and Sociopaths, have no innate capacity for empathy and that this is either a very weak or else missing element of their personality.

You might also wonder about degrees of empathy in yourself and others... and think further about questions like:

  • Do we learn empathy from our caregivers?
  • Can we fake it? Deepen it? Or lose it?
  • Is feeling empathy contingent upon other factors like the context or our energy level?
  • Is empathy essential to your work?
  • Is being empathic core to how you see yourself?

Research also suggests that there are three types of empathy: Cognitive, Emotional and Compassionate empathy.

  • Cognitive Empathy is suggested as projecting what you know about a similar situation and acknowledging to the other person that you understand their experience because you have perhaps been through something similar. Using your cognition, you evaluate the situation and imagine what is going on in another person's mind, via your own recollection of a similar experience.
  • Emotional Empathy is the emotional reaction we feel when witnessing another person's suffering or trauma and our brain not only imitates what they are experiencing, it actually simulates the same states within our own body. Emotional empathy is the biggest risk factor for Vicarious Traumatisation. The capacity for emotional empathy is what drives many people to become helpers in the first place.
  • Compassionate Empathy is feeling both concern for someone who is suffering and having an urge to do something to mitigate their plight i.e. to help!

1. Video: Brown, B., Sympathy vs Empathy - Brené Brown
2. Buber, M. I and Thou (2008) Simon & Schuster; 1st Touchstone Ed Edition - English translation of Ich und Du (1923)
3. Hojat M, Vergare MJ, Maxwell K, Brainard G, Herrine SK, Isenberg GA, et al. The devil is in the third year: a longitudinal study of empathy erosion in medical school. Acad Med. 2009
4. McKay, L. and Pearlman, L.A. (2008) Understanding and Addressing Vicarious Trauma, Headington Institute, Online Training Module 4