October 10, 2011


A good therapist should be empathetic, right? Most people, myself included, would automatically agree--but what is empathy, anyway?

Until recently, my loose and unexamined definition of empathy was the capacity to put yourself in someone else's shoes and feel as he or she feels. So when in clinical case discussions, colleagues mentioned how awful they felt about a given client's situation, or that tears came to their eyes during a client's particularly moving story, I called that empathy. And when other colleagues reported that this never happens to them--that they never vicariously experience clients' pain or take clients' problems home with them--I called this lack of empathy. I figured that the former group were the more sensitive, more human, and all-around better psychologists, and that there was probably something wrong with the latter group.

However, subsequent to a conversation on this very topic, a friend pointed me to the Wikipedia page for empathy, which lists definitions of the term by various theorists. To my surprise, many of them were not consistent with my definition. Rather, several referred to a cognitive component of empathy, that is, empathy as the ability to understand another person's thoughts, feelings, and motivations, without necessarily experiencing them.

Examples of this type of definition include "the ability to put oneself into the mental shoes of another person to understand her emotions and feelings" and "a complex form of psychological inference in which observation, memory, knowledge, and reasoning are combined to yield insights into the thoughts and feelings of others." These definitions involve perception and appreciation of how the other person is feeling, but don't imply stepping into his or her shoes.

Other definitions suggested that empathy has both cognitive and emotional components. For example: "There are two major elements to empathy. The first is the cognitive component: understanding the other's feelings and the ability to take their perspective. The second element to empathy is the affective component. This is an observer's appropriate emotional response to another person's emotional state." Another definition proposed that empathy is "the capacity to a) be affected by and share the emotional state of another, b) assess the reasons for the other’s state, and c) identify with the other, adopting his or her perspective." 

Reading these interpretations changed my personal definition of empathy and eliminated my judgment of therapists who don't feel their clients' pain. The more I think about it, the more I believe that, in combination with warmth, compassion, and therapy and problem-solving skills, cognitive empathy is enough.

What do you think? Would you appreciate seeing your therapist wiping away tears when you describe your troubles, or is it enough if he or she can understand where you're coming from and why, and can use that knowledge to help you move forward?


  1. Hey, good post as usual, but . . .

    "the ability to put oneself into the mental shoes" . . . does not "imply stepping into his or her shoes."

    That paragraph needs a little work!

  2. Sorry for the long delay in posting my comments.

    Reading your recent post on empathy, and your expectations to what makes an "all-around better psychologists" I had a few thoughts.

    Specifically, I am curious how an anthropologist would approach these expectations. I suspect that there is a certain cultural expectation as to the reaction of individuals when faced with demonstrations of strong emotion.

    This interaction between receiver and emoter is full of expectations of the "appropriate" response, and is dependent on the relative roles of the characters involved. In the case of a phychologist, I would expect their reaction to be different than that of a judge or a police officer.

    Perhaps I am looking at this too much from a cognitive perspective. Ultimately my question regarding empathy rests in the following. Either empathetic reactions (the balance between cognitive and emotive or the relative lack of empathy generally) are contigent on cultural expectations, or the receivers reaction is always the same regardless of the situation the find themselves.

    Put another way, do the positions of the receiver change their emotive reaction, or do certain professions select individuals with an "appropriate" response mechanism?

  3. Your discussion of different types of empathy reminded me of the Glass of Water scene from White Men Can't Jump between Rosie Perez and Woody Harrelson.