Last Updated: April 9, 2024

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Learn how practicing empathy can enhance relationships, foster understanding, and promote emotional intelligence. Unlock the secrets of empathy to elevate your relationships and emotional well-being. 

Empathy Explained

Empathy is such an important part of understanding and appreciating our own inner worlds, as well as those of others around us: friends, partners, family, or anyone we cross paths with.

It is something we will explore more deeply in this article, as empathy is a core part of being human, of holding space not only for our own emotions but also for those we care about. It is a way we can connect, be understood, and know others in ways that go beyond superficiality.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is the remarkable ability to step into someone else's world, seeing things through their eyes and understanding how they might feel. It's not about necessarily agreeing with their perspective, but rather about compassionately holding space for it.

Human empathy, like the human experience itself, is beautifully complex and layered. Here is how it unfolds:

  1. Feeling what they feel: This is the instinctual part of empathy, where you feel an immediate resonance with what another person is going through.

  2. Seeing things from their perspective: Empathy involves putting yourself in someone else's shoes, seeing the world from their perspective (known as perspective-taking), and understanding their thoughts and emotions.

  3. Compassionate action: Empathy often moves you to act with compassion, whether it is offering support and care, being a shoulder to cry on, or providing practical help (when asked of us)

  4. Non-verbal cues: Sometimes, empathy is communicated through subtle behaviors or mannerisms, like our body language (leaning in towards our loved one), facial expressions (a softness in our gaze), or gestures (nodding our heads to let them know we hear and understand them).

  5. Setting boundaries: An often-overlooked aspect is knowing when to lovingly separate our inner feelings with those that are being shared with us. This important step, which we will explore later on in this post, is a key part of relating empathetically. Being overly empathetic can drain your emotional resources, making it essential to set healthy boundaries.

Empathy is a bridge that connects us, and allows us to understand without judgment, and love without condition.

Empathy vs. Sympathy - What's the Difference?

"People often confuse sympathy with empathy. Sympathy is I feel bad FOR you. Empathy is I feel WITH you. Sympathy can make us feel more alone. Empathy helps us feel connected." Brene brown

Empathy and sympathy may seem similar, but they have distinct qualities that shape how we connect with others.

Think of empathy as trying to see the world from someone else's eyes, feeling what they feel, and understanding their emotional experience.

Picture your friend pouring their heart out about a tough day at work. Instead of simply nodding along, you take a deep dive into their emotions. You listen with your whole heart, validate their struggles, and show understanding by saying something like, "I can imagine how frustrating that must be. It sounds like a real uphill battle, and I'm right here beside you, cheering you on."

Unlike empathy, sympathy is a bit like standing on the shore and sending a heartfelt wave to someone swimming in rough waters. It's about recognizing their pain or struggle from a distance and offering concern or pity in response.

For instance, if the same friend shares that they're going through a difficult time with a romantic relationship, you might respond sympathetically with, "I'm so sorry to hear that. You're strong, and I believe you'll get through this." While your words are kind, it's more of a gentle acknowledgment from afar rather than diving deep into their experience with them.

Different Types of Empathy

There are different shades of empathy, each offering unique insights into how we connect with others. Understanding these types can help you adapt your empathetic interactions to suit specific situations and relationships.

Cognitive Empathy

Think of this as understanding someone's perspective on an intellectual level, or trying to understand what they might be thinking. This kind of empathy can be super useful in the workplace when you're trying to smooth things over in a tricky situation or anticipate a client's needs.

Affective Empathy

Affective or emotional empathy is all about feeling the emotions of others. It's like when your friend is heartbroken, and suddenly you feel a tug on your heartstrings too. While it can deepen bonds, it also means you are carrying a bit of emotional weight, especially without healthy boundaries.

Combining different forms of empathy, such as cognitive and affective empathy, allows for an even deeper understanding of someone else's experiences, both intellectually and emotionally.

Somatic Empathy

This one isn't talked about as much, but it's pretty interesting! Somatic empathy involves physically feeling another person's emotions, and is often experienced in close relationships. 

The physical response triggers sensations corresponding to someone else's emotional state, like a stress headache or butterflies in the stomach.

Benefits of Empathetic Relationships

In our search for deeper connections, there's something truly special about empathetic relationships. They provide a safe space where we can be ourselves, where understanding flows freely, and where acceptance is unconditional. These connections offer more than just companionship; they offer solace, support, and a profound sense of belonging.

We Can Be Our Authentic Selves

Empathetic connections provide a safe space where we can be our authentic selves, accepted and appreciated just as we are. Research suggests that these bonds greatly improve how satisfied we feel in our relationships.

We Feel Valued and Understood

In empathetic relationships, we find comfort in knowing that someone truly understands us and vice versa. Imagine having someone who listens to us with genuine care, acknowledging our experiences and feelings with warmth and encouragement. These moments remind us of our worth and the beauty of being fully accepted.

We Feel Calmer

Your ability to feel empathy, and receive it from others, has a soothing effect on our bodies, including our nervous systems. When we confide in someone who truly understands us, it's like a weight is lifted off our shoulders, and our stress levels decrease. This sense of comfort and support helps calm our nerves, making us feel more secure and grounded in ourselves and experiences. When we hold space for another person's distress, they will likely feel calmer, too - this is a form of co-regulation.

"People need empathy for feelings of delight, anticipation, excitement, happiness, glee, joy, passion, love, and celebration just as much as they need to receive resonance for emotions that are more difficult to experience,"Sarah Peyton, Your Resonant Self: Guided Meditations and Exercises to Engage Your Brain's Capacity for Healing.

How to Be More Empathetic

Empathy is a practice that will grow over time. Here are some key things to keep in mind while you enhance your empathic abilities:

Mindfully Walk in Their Shoes

Start by understanding where your loved one is coming from. When they share their struggles, try to see things from their point of view without letting your own feelings or beliefs get in the way. Show them you're there for them by saying something like, "I'm here to understand. How are you feeling?"

Listen with an Open Heart

When someone shares their struggles with you, practice active listening. Instead of immediately offering advice, focus on truly understanding their emotions. For instance, if a friend confides in you about their relationship issues, let them know they're in a safe space to express themselves.

You might say, "That must have been so hard and difficult to go through alone. I am glad you are sharing with me now. Do you want to share more about how it made you feel? What came up for you in that moment?"

Be Curious

Approach conversations with genuine curiosity about other people's emotions or experiences. Ask open-ended questions and show interest in their thoughts and feelings.

Practice Self-Awareness

Empathy begins with understanding our own emotions. Engage in reflective practices like journaling about how emotions feel in your body, the thoughts (about yourself or others) they trigger, the feelings themselves (e.g., sadness, joy), and how you react to them (what actions you take or are wanting to take).

Being aware of these four aspects of emotions can deepen your emotional insight, enhancing your ability to empathize with others and hold space for their emotional experiences.

Remember, empathy is a skill that requires practice and patience. It is not only okay if you don't always get it right, but is completely normal. What matters is your willingness to show up and try.

How to Care for Yourself While Caring for Others

Empathy is a powerful way to connect with others, but it's important to approach it thoughtfully. Here are some practical tips to help you engage empathetically while also taking care of yourself.

Guide, Don't Fix

Instead of feeling responsible for solving others' problems, think of yourself as a supportive guide. Just be there to listen and understand without feeling the need to fix everything.

As an empathetic person, you might feel overwhelmed by another person's emotions at times. You might even become so involved that it starts affecting your feelings and mental state. This can lead to burnout and leave you feeling drained and less able to support yourself and your own needs.

Stay Centered and Grounded

Check in with yourself regularly to stay connected to your own feelings and needs. Acknowledge any negative emotions that arise and give yourself permission to prioritize self-care. This ensures that you can offer genuine support to others while maintaining your inner balance and well-being.

Set Compassionate Boundaries

In our interactions, it's essential that we establish boundaries that honor our mental and emotional well-being, as well as our time and energy. Boundaries aren't about pushing people away; they're about finding a healthy balance between helping others and taking care of ourselves. We can't support others if we are neglecting our own needs, personal distress included.

Empathy works best when paired with self-awareness and mindfulness. By following these straightforward guidelines, you can navigate empathetic interactions with ease, nurturing deeper connections while still prioritizing your own well-being.


Empathy is all about genuine connection and understanding, where authenticity matters most. Remember, you don't have to quantify or measure empathy; it's more personal than that. It is about being there, truly listening, and letting kindness lead the way in your interactions.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is empathy important?

Empathy is crucial in establishing meaningful relationships and creating a harmonious society. It allows us to understand each other better, reduce conflict, express empathy and promote positive interactions.

Do people with personality disorders lack empathy?

It is a common misconception that people with personality disorders lack empathy entirely, including those living with borderline personality disorder.

While emotional challenges (e.g., when feeling dysregulated or triggered) may affect their empathic abilities, this does not equate to a capacity for empathy.

How does empathy contribute to personal growth and self-awareness?

Empathy promotes personal growth and self-awareness by encouraging use to see ourselves in others, and reflect on our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Through interacting with others, we not only learn more about them, but we also learn more about ourselves. This is because relationships serve as mirrors that reflect back aspects of ourselves, deepening our self-awareness.


Empathy Definition | What Is Empathy 

Empathy - Wikipedia 

Empathy: How to Feel and Respond to the Emotions of Others - HelpGuide.org 

Empathy | Psychology Today

Compassion vs. Empathy: Their Meanings and Which to Use  


The contents of this article are provided for informational purposes only and are not intended to substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It is always recommended to consult with a qualified healthcare provider before making any health-related changes or if you have any questions or concerns about your health. Anahana is not liable for any errors, omissions, or consequences that may occur from using the information provided.