What is Empathy Anyway?

I set out to explore the avoidance or criticisms of empathy, to inquire what reasons individuals have for disdaining empathic responses. What I discovered was that everyone certainly has an opinion on the use of empathy, but the definition of empathy itself is more ethereal than fairies and rainbows. With concepts of many stripes floating amid partial definitions, I was left to ponder—what is this stuff—this empathy—that so polarizes us as a culture?

So, after consulting the OED, three neuroscientists, several Jungian therapists and many hours of research, I have come to view empathy as a continuum. Empathy is more than a sensation, an emotion, an internal state; it changes our lives and relationships ever so slightly and, occasionally, it changes our lives dramatically. Not just a point or a short segment within the continuum, but something that begins with mirror neurons and can end in utter altruism.

The Empathy Continuum has Four Criteria: (for which the acronym ACER serves as a mnemonic device)

1. Attunement: Emotional and mental attunement to and/or mirroring of another’s inner experiences as one’s own

2. Compassion, a change in the individuals’ affective state as a result of that attunement/mirroring, creating a safe relatedness between individuals.

3. Equality: the individuals become equals, peers on all levels. Power differentials disappear.

4. Response: action/discernment that evolves from compassionate peerage created by the first three conditions honoring the highest good of all individuals

Emotional and mental attunement of another’s inner experience are a changed inner feeling state and the resultant thoughts from that state, Criteria One, “getting” what another is experiencing.

Criteria Two, compassion, is the full allowing of Criteria One which creates a relationship with the “other.” Compassion creates a completely safe relationship for the individuals. This is in contrast to one who merely “dials in” to another and remains in an unrelated state. The relatedness that results from genuine compassionate relating is in sharp contrast to exploitative quasi-attuenment. From an unrelated “dialed-in” state, an exploitative person is able to pity, exploit, abuse, rape or even murder the “other.” Compassion creates a state of trust and relatedness between the individuals.

Criteria Three: What is frequently missed in definitions of empathy is that attunement and compassion creates a sense of being a peer with the other. No one individual exists as more powerful than the other. Even pity is a power differential state between individuals. Ditto with sympathy. Only empathy creates equality. One gives pity “to” another, something that can be given in only one direction. Empathy moves between individuals quite freely, moving in many directions at once. If the equal peerage is not part of the exchange, the situation is not empathy. It may be a form of lessened power differential, but unless there is a sense of genuine equality, Criteria Three has not been met. Compassion is being withheld in some manner by one or more parties.

Criteria Four is the resultant changes within the individuals and the external actions that they take thereafter. Because a safe and equal relatedness allows all individuals to discern without fear of retaliation from the other(s) also in that state, decisions and actions taken, both individually and as a group have the potential to serve the highest good of all participants. When action springs from genuine empathy, all parties are rejuvenated. There are no exhausted “givers” and over-stated “takers.”

We are human and therefore imperfectly execute this continuum. We have everything from unconscious fears to rational reasons to stop short at any point within the progression. However, if we can hold empathy as a continuum, we can better understand our inner and outer realities.


4 thoughts on “What is Empathy Anyway?

  1. This was really helpful. I never thought about the definition or components of empathy. Actually it’s a reminder too! There are some criteria to strive for. Doesn’t always happen – now I know why.

    • Thanks, Jane. I was writing an article on why people avoid empathy. In my field research, I discovered that the definition of empathy was so all-over-the-place that I had to set the article aside and define what was being avoided.

      Now back to that article to see what else is revealed. 🙂

      Being human is a strange way to get through life, eh? :))))

  2. this is really great but i have a question i understand that empathy promotes equality through individuals but why. Whats the because statement that would go with that.

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