Written by Marissa Halstead
Empathy is somewhat of a buzzword in our culture these days. Certainly, we have heard someone say “have more empathy,” but have you ever stopped to wonder what having empathy actually means? According to Carl Rogers, a psychologist who is known for his person-centered psychology, would define empathy as, “seeing the world through the eyes of the other and not seeing our world reflected in their eyes.” When someone empathizes with something we’ve experienced, we might describe it as, “they really got it.”
Empathy is not just something that has been observed by psychologists, but it has been studied by neuroscientists who’ve described empathy and how it develops. According to the Social Neuroscience of Empathy, researchers sought to answer these two questions: “How can one know what another person is thinking and feeling?” AND “What leads one person to respond with sensitivity and care to the suffering of another?” Neuroscientists have found eight situations in which empathy can be observed. They include:
- Knowing another person’s internal state, including his or her thoughts and feelings.
- Adopting the posture or matching the neural responses of an observed other.
- Coming to feel as another person feels.
- Intuiting or projecting oneself into another’s situation.
- Imagining how another is thinking and feeling.
- Imagining how one would think and feel in another’s place.
- Feeling distress at witnessing another person’s suffering.
- Feeling for another person who is suffering.
Even in childhood, we learn how to reflect what others are feeling through mimicking their facial expressions, vocalizations, posture, and movements. When we look at other people, we get feedback on how their internal world must be by what they choose to display to us. Mimicking or mirroring someone’s expression can help us guess their emotional state by what we might feel if we matched them. The beginning of empathy usually starts when we sense someone else is in distress, we want the distress to stop because it makes us uncomfortable. Thankfully with maturity and awareness, we can be with someone for all that they are (even if we are uncomfortable) and have true empathy. We all want someone to be able to see the world through our set of eyes and have true compassion.
One of the many benefits of therapy is the empathy that a therapist offers his or her client. A therapist will work to see the world through your eyes. Every client has his or her own unique goals, perspectives, feelings, and experiences. Therapists use empathy to understand the particular context clients are in to build realistic steps forward.