Considering Empathy
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Considering Empathy: Some Preliminary Definitions


J. E. Bellous



            Empathy is one of the primary spiritual, intellectual and practical virtues.  It may very well be the least understood and the most ineffectively practised.  I suggest that if we could be empathetic, we would be different people: our relationship with God, with ourselves, and with other people would improve.

            Why the focus on “Empathy and Advent”?  During Advent, we prepare ourselves to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.  In the Incarnation we have the only complete model for empathy since it is full participation in two worlds of experience at the same time.  Christians believe that Jesus is both God and a human being, one who came to show us what God is like and to show us  what we could be like when we allow God to shepherd our anxiety and speak to our sin.

            There is a relationship between human anxiety, sin and our failure to empathize.  In a book entitled, Sin: Radical Evil in Soul and Society (Eerdmans, 1994), Ted Peters suggests that human anxiety is at the core of our tendency to sin.  I agree that anxiety itself is not sin, but rather that it readies us for sin.  Anxiety is inevitable in human experience.  If we do not give our anxiety over to God, we move into sinfulness as a way to calm ourselves down.  Of course sinning does not help to quiet our souls.  Things only get worse.  To Peters, the core problem of sin is spiritual pride, but the fault in pride is found not in selfishness (as we have been taught throughout modernity).  Rather, pride is most clearly characterized by an absence of empathy.

            In pride, and without empathy, we disdain others—those who are foreign are dismissed from the Table.  We focus on our own pretended goodness (which rightly belongs to God alone) until we are able to be cruel to other people, thus harming them spiritually, intellectually, emotionally and physically.  During Advent, the Good News is that God came among us to ease our anxiety and to forgive our sin.   One of the ways we realize and practice God’s goodness among us is to learn to be empathetic and allow our anxiety to relax into compassion.  Thus exploring the topic of empathy is one way to encourage our educational readiness to be effective witnesses of God’s grace.


Definitions of Empathy


Empathy is the power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) an object of contemplation.  Oxford English Dictionary


Empathy is the power of identifying oneself mentally with (and so fully comprehending) a person or an object of contemplation. Canadian Oxford Dictionary


Empathy is an act in which I “feel with” another person.  I do not ‘put myself in the other’s shoes.’ I do not say, How would I feel if this happened to me?   I set aside my temptation to analyse and to plan.  I do not project; I receive the other into myself, and I see and feel with the other.  The sort of empathy we are discussing does not first penetrate the other but receives the other….I receive, communicate with, I work with the other.  Feeling is not all that is involved, but it is essentially involved.[i]


Empathy: when someone attacks or criticizes you, you can be sad (flee, hide, avoid) or you can be mad (fight, protect your self from criticism, reestablish your ground) or you can be glad (empathize, ask questions until you understand, attend to what the other person is trying to say).[ii] 


Empathy is the capacity to conceptualize the impact—on ourselves and on other people—of what we do and to feel appropriate and genuine sorrow and regret without thinking of ourselves as irredeemably bad.  Empathy gives us the necessary mental and emotional climate to guide our behavior in a moral and self-enhancing manner without being harsh and mean-spirited to our selves or to other people.[iii]


Empathy refers to acts in which foreign experience is grasped.  In empathy we sense what is presented, and what is behind what is presented as someone else’s experience.[iv]


Empathy: feeling one’s self in another or in another’s experience.[v]


A Working Definition of Empathy


 Empathy is an intuitive act in which we give complete attention to someone else’s experience in a way that allows the other to  realize that we both share and understand the essential quality of that experience.  To be empathetic is to provide a safe haven for the particular experience of the other person.  To be empathetic is to release the other person from feeling entirely alone and strange.


Considering Empathy


            There are several types of empathy, as the preceding definitions indicate.  For example, there is aesthetic empathy, in which we approach a text or an object of art and attempt to make sense of its meaning.  There is relational empathy, which is a cognitive, affective and potentially sympathetic encounter with foreign experience.  There is ethical empathy, which is the ability to visualize the consequences, good and bad, of our behaviour.   Ethical empathy is the capacity to conceptualize the impact—on ourselves and other people—of what we do and to feel appropriate, genuine sorrow and regret without thinking of ourselves as irredeemably bad. Empathy gives us the necessary mental and emotional climate to guide our behaviour in a moral and self-enhancing manner without being harsh and mean-spirited to our selves.   There is also what I will call spiritual empathy, which enables us to relate to the God made known to us historically and biblically in Jesus Christ, as well as through the presence and work of the Holy Spirit.  Since all types of empathy involve affective as well as cognitive aspects, one of the difficult issues in describing empathy is to distinguish feeling from thinking, while showing how they work together.

            In all types of empathy we face what is foreign.  In considering the nature of empathy, I will focus primarily on relational empathy.  The fundamental problem in trying to be relationally empathetic is to perceive foreign subjects (other people) and their experiences (as well as ways they experience us).  The question empathy raises is this: What is essential to the act of perceiving what is foreign if we want to be empathetic?   By foreign, I simply mean experiences that are not ours because they are not happening directly to us.  Relational empathy has to do with the implied assumption that foreign subjects (other people) and their experiences are given to us in a certain way and can be understood by us even though such experiences are not our own.  Questions about empathy hinge on whether and to what extent we can enter into or come along side other people’s experience in a way that they would recognize.  Empathetic people seem to be able to enter into or come along side experience that is foreign and yet describe or narrate that experience in a way that the other person acknowledges as accurate.  I will describe relational empathy as fully as possible and mark out the boundaries around both the essence of empathy as well and what I will call full empathetic participation (i.e., empathy plus sympathy).

            Two verbs predominate when people try to explain how empathy works.   The first defines empathy in terms of projecting one’s self or one’s personality into someone else’s experience.  The second defines empathy in terms of receiving another person’s experience, often emphasizing that full comprehension of the other is very difficult.  The sort of empathy we are discussing does not first penetrate the other but receives the other.  I receive, communicate with, I work with the other.  In this view of empathy, receptivity is often expressly contrasted with projection: “I do not project” in the empathetic relation, rather, “I receive the other into myself, and I see and feel with the other.”

            I suggest that we engage both verbs to describe empathy, while acknowledging a potentially harmful aspect in each way of thinking.  If I consider empathy to be about projecting my experience into someone else’s I must realize that those who describe empathy as receptivity may hear the language of projection in terms of invasion or intrusion into someone’s space, i.e., as an aggressive, unlawful, or forceful entry.  Yet those who describe empathy as “projecting” understand it as an act of valuing and caring for the other by entering into their experience. Those who use the language of receptivity to describe the empathetic act have a difficulty of similar proportion.  They typically use synonyms for empathy that imply “coming along side” another rather than entering into someone else’s experience.  The empathetic person is engrossed with the other as a way of giving full attention to the shared experience: my complete and sustained attention is meant to convey their significance and credibility to me.  But, as with projecting, receiving may be perceived as having the dangerous tendency to trap the other in one’s gaze.  Empathy on the model of receiving must stop short of entrapment, i.e., the aggressive holding onto someone who wants to be released from my attention—or my attempt to be empathetic with them.

            In summary, empathy refers to acts in which foreign experience is grasped.  In being empathetic, we sense what is presented and what is behind what is presented as someone else’s experience.  Yet we can really only know what happens to us personally: what happens to someone else is outside of our experience.  Suppose we see someone hit by a car.  We may see it, and feel something, but we do not feel the car hitting our own bodies.  And we do not sense how this event fits into that individual’s personal history.  We do not know what that other person is experiencing.  How, then, can we be empathetic?  What does it mean to be empathetic?  In short, what does another person need to sense in us so that he or she can believe that we are, in fact, being empathetic? 


Empathy and Children


            We are posing a complex question when we ask: What does the other person need to sense in order to believe that we are relating empathetically with them?  One aspect of a fully engaged empathetic act is that those who empathize come to sense what the other person requires in order to feel understood.   I will pick up on this question by explaining some of the recent research on infants and their ability to engage in interpersonal relationships, which can help us to see how the empathetic relationship functions.

            In the first seven to nine months in an infant’s life there emerges the first deliberate sharing of interpersonal space with those who care for them.   Exchanges between the caregiver and infant take place through a shared attention to a third object.  During this time the child is developing what Daniel Stern calls the subjective self.  This period can also be described as the foundation for the development of the soul, i.e., the seat of emotion, intuition, and receptivity to God, as well as receptivity to other people.   The following example explains how shared attention to a third object works. 

            Suppose the mother turns her head and looks out of the room to gaze at something distressing.  Immediately the infant follows her gaze with attentive anxiousness.  Neither says anything (obviously, the infant cannot yet talk).  But these pre-linguistic expressions of shared attention and shared feeling are communicated from the infant to the mother and back again. In these exchanges, non-verbal intimacy becomes a real possibility: gestures, postures, facial expressions, and sounds work together to provide shared meanings as both infant and mother gaze at a third object.  For their part, infants at this age are also capable of initiating such an encounter by gazing at a third object that the mother then looks toward as well.  That is, babies are capable of what Stern calls shared attention (gazing with another person at a third object), shared intention (persistently signalling that an intent is to be understood by the other) and shared affect (shared feelings) even though they do not have oral language.  The research on infant experience is growing constantly and more could be said about what they are capable of even in the first year of life.  The experience of shared attention, shared intention and shared affect is similar to the empathetic act, as we will describe it later, even though it falls short of full empathy.

            When the infant and the mother attune themselves to one another with respect to a third object, the mother responds to the infant in a particular way.  Affect attunement is the recognition and restatement by the parent of the child’s affective state and it is a complex operation involving several important factors:

 .      an accurate reading of the baby’s behaviour by the parent or other caretaker;

a.    an intimate history of the child’s feelings, giving rise to the ability to participate in those feelings/

b.    the ability to respond with different, non-imitative, but accurate behaviours that signal to the infant that his or her affective states are understood;

c.    finally, for emotional attunement to occur the infant must be able to read and understand that response.[vi]

            One primary way we indicate to children that we are resonating with them, or feeling with them, is through matching the intensity of our responses to the intensity of their actions. Caregivers match the beat, rhythm, or shape of an infant’s gesture or sound but do not imitate it exactly.  Simply imitating the infant does not contribute to affect attunement.  Imitation tends to annoy.  So the parent responds with a gesture or sound that is similar but not identical. These encounters indicate that attunement builds mutuality between caring ones and their infants.  Attunement is a dynamic ongoing process, rather than a discrete set of episodes or categorical affect.   Affect attunement takes place without spoken language.

            Stern suggests that the development of language is a mixed blessing.   Interdependent “meaning making” in pre-verbal infants is remarkable: mothers “read” their infants, while babies inform their mothers of their needs and intentions.  In constructing meaning together, infants and mothers take turns leading and following to accomplish this essential communicative task.

            A new level of relatedness is possible when children begin to talk, for with the advent of a verbal self, children narrate their own lives and can change how they perceive themselves. While this shift does not eclipse pre-verbal experience, language recasts and transforms some of the child’s inter-subjective experiences.  There is an ongoing non-verbal experience and there is a verbalized version of that experience.  In short, language grabs hold of a piece of non-verbal experience (in all its various dimensions of feeling, sensing, thinking, and wanting), but words themselves never can convey the whole of that experience.  As Stern puts it, we have world knowledge and we have word knowledge and the two do not match.  With spoken language, the child “gains entrance into a wider cultural membership, but at the risk of losing the force and wholeness of original experience.”[vii]

            In empathy we have the opportunity to attend to another person in a way that does not require language, although language can be used.  Typically we are so afraid “to say the wrong thing” when someone is in pain that we neglect and ignore the person.  Empathy does not have to speak, but it may.  A fully participatory empathetic act conveys that we are deeply understood and safe and that our experience makes sense to at least one other person, which lets us know that we are neither crazy nor alone. 

            Again from recent research we are learning that children are able to take another person’s perspective and put themselves in another’s place, at a number of different levels.  Initially, this activity is self-focussed, whereby an infant imagines what it would mean if something happening to another child were to impinge on them.  As early as eleven months, the child is able to imagine how the other feels in this situation.  A second level is the awareness that the other person has internal states independent of the child’s own internal states, both in the present and over time.  At a third, primarily affective level, two to three-year-olds understand that other children have emotions of their own that emerge out of their personal experiences.  At a fourth level, empathy is transformed into partial sympathy.  This happens when the child experiences a feeling of compassion for someone suffering from sadness, grief, worry, or hopelessness, often expressing a desire to help.  Modelling of empathy and sympathy on the part of the primary caregiver may well be essential to stimulating this transformation from empathy to sympathy. A fifth and final level involves asking who is to blame for the distress the other is experiencing. Three possibilities emerge: no one can be found to blame for causing the pain (which reinforces the sympathetic distress); causes for the distress are successfully identified (which may lead to anger, as the observing child alternates between sympathetic distress and sympathetic anger); or the third possibility is to blame one’s self (which results in feelings of shame and guilt).[viii]  All of these moves are involved when someone is trying to be empathetic.

            When I am asking my self if I am empathetic I am always asking

 .      whether I am attending to the object of someone else’s experience, 

a.    which I realize is foreign to me, 

b.    but which I do attend to in such a way that I might come to fully participate in the foreign experience as long as 

c.    I keep attending to the proper object, which remains foreign (i.e., not mine)

d.    from which I do not turn away (either because of my experience of the moment or my personality) 

e.    and with which I am in sympathy.

Thus, the attempt to be empathetic involves an intentional engagement in an experience that is foreign to us. 

            Of course, even moral and good persons can choose to turn away from the empathetic encounter, for a variety of reasons.  They may believe themselves to be more of an authority on the experience in question than the person currently undergoing it.  They may rely on assumptions about that experience that they fail to verify with the other person.  Perhaps they are unable to move past the various levels of childhood development described earlier.  Or some other aspect of the experience, or indeed of the observer’s own personality, may cause them to turn away.  For example, the pain or joy of the experience may prove too intense, or some prior experience on the part of the observer may intrude.  Any of these factors can prevent the observer from continuing to attend to the other person and their experience. 

            Spiritual empathy, however, is distinct in the sense that the observer begins, not by attending to the (potentially overwhelming) joy or sorrow of the other, but by being fully engaged by the empathy of God.  Only as the observer finds rest from sorrow and affirmation in joy will they be able to reflect God’s empathy freely with the other person.  That is to say, only as we find rest and affirmation in God are we able to pass these blessings God’s grace on to other people.




Selected Resources on Empathy


David D. Burns, M.D., Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy (New York: Avon Books, 1992).


James W. Fowler, Faithful Change: The Personal and Public Challenges of Postmodern Life (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996).


Nel Noddings, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1984).


Eugene H. Peterson, Leap over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1997).


Ann-Marie Rizzuto, The Birth of the Living God (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979).


Edith Stein, On The Problem of Empathy (tr. Waltraut Stein; The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1964.


Daniel N. Stern, The Interpersonal World of Infants (New York: Basic Books, 1985).


David Woodruff Smith, The Circle of Acquaintance: Perception, Consciousness and Empathy (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989).


James A. Vanderven, Formation of the Moral Self (Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 1998).







[i].     Nel Noddings, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (Berkeley, Cal.: University of California Press, 1984) 30-32.

[ii].    David D. Burns, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy (New York: Avon Books, 1992) 135.

[iii].   Burns, Feeling Good 135-137.

[iv].   Edith Stein, On the Problem of Empathy, tr. Waltraut Stein (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1964).

[v].    David Woodruff Smith, The Circle of Acquaintance: Perception, Consciousness and Empathy (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989) 155.

[vi].   Daniel N. Stern, The Interpersonal World of Infants (New York: Basic Books, 1985) 36.

[vii].   Stern, Interpersonal World 177.

[viii].  James A. Vanderven, Formation of the Moral Self (Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 1998) 313-315.