Updated: Oct 30
From the vast throws of world unrest, the tail spins of COVID-19, amid the storms you may be in, or the looming cold months ahead…one thing is certain: Empathy can warm the soul.
Empathy is broadly defined “as the process by which individuals are able to recognize, understand, and share in or react to the emotional states of others” (Frick & Kemp, 2021). An important component in social learning and communication across the lifespan, empathy is “largely considered a fundamental human trait necessary for both survival and social success.” Empathy is described as a vital component in self-regulation of emotions as well as healthy development.
Psychologist Carl Rogers researched, utilized, and wrote about empathy as “possibly the most potent and certainly one of the most potent factors in bringing about change and learning” (1975). “The way of being with another person which is termed empathetic has several facets. It involves being sensitive, moment to moment, to the changing felt meanings which flow in this other person, to the fear or range of tenderness or confusion or whatever, that he/she is experiencing. It means temporarily living in his/her life, moving about in it delicately without making judgements, sensing meanings of which he/she is scarcely aware, but not trying to uncover feelings of which the person is totally unaware, since this would be too threatening.”
Research describes empathy as being comprised of two components: affective empathy, which is an emotional reaction stemming from emotion of others; and cognitive empathy, described as the ability to recognize and identify another’s emotion and understand a person’s perspective (Frick & Kemp, 2021). Distinctions in affective and cognitive empathy have been found using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), revealing distinct brain functions.
“Affective empathy are sensations and feelings in response to another person’s emotions” (Ratka, 2018). “Cognitive empathy refers to the ability to identify and understand emotions of others.” Empathy is considered a built-in human attribute which shows “inter-individual variability and can change over time.” The part of the brain that is utilized to generate empathy by reflecting other peoples' emotions is the work of mirror neurons (Sutton, 2021).
Literature provides examples of educational interventions aimed to enhance empathy. Higher levels of empathy can be predicted in various parenting practices, such as (Frick & Kemp, 2021):
Increased parental warmth and sensitivity to a child’s emotional cures and needs.
Having emotional socialization encouraged by parents, such as cultivating open communication about emotions to improve emotion knowledge.
Encouragement and reinforcement of child engagement in empathetic responding and healthy social behavior
In addition to the strategies, Sutton (2021) outlines other ways to cultivate empathy including:
Cultivating curiosity about those you meet
Stepping out of your comfort zone
Receiving feedback from others regarding active listening and relationship skills
Examining your biases
Spending time “walking in the shoes of others”
Having difficult, respectful conversations, being open to new and different ideas
Joining a shared cause like a community project, or helping others with different life experiences
Reading a wide variety of genres to increase emotional intelligence and increase capacity to empathize
As a counselor, I have been asked, “Is there such a thing as too much empathy?” Empathatic Reactivity is an index of the strength of the emotional reaction to a situation, or “over empathizing with people and situations so that it becomes harmful to oneself and others” (Fellows in Residence, 2017).
Empathy is a way of being that requires regulation. Without regulation, too much empathy can “blur the lines of identity with another” which can be harmful to not only you but also those you empathize with. On the other hand, the lack of empathy is correlated to unhealthy psychological deficits which can contribute to a lack of empathy, guilt, or remorse for others, which can lead to negative outcomes, including criminal behavior or worse.
Self-awareness can help us practice healthy empathy. It is important to find a balance of boundaries while continuing to remain authentically concerned. This is a skill that can be learned and practiced, while allowing us to be genuinely available to each other without compassion fatigue, or burnout.
Teresa Jacobson is a Doctor of Behavioral Health and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Supervisor who is counseling Ohio adults of all ages and life experiences via secure Telehealth/Video visits. A strength-based, person-centered multi-cultural counselor, with an existential philosophy, Teresa can be reached through emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org, calling (513) 206-3026, or visiting https://www.jacobsoncounseling.org.
Fellows in Residence, (2017, July 31). The other side of empathy. Retrieved from
Frick, P.J. and Kemp, E. C. (2021). Conduct disorders and empathy development. Annual Reviews Clinical
Psychology, 17, 391-416. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-081219-105809
Ratka, A. (2018). Empathy and the development of affective skills. American Journal of Pharmaceutical
Education 82(10) 1140-1143. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6325458/
Rogers, C. R. (1975). Empathetic: An unappreciated way of being. The Counseling Psychologist. 5, 2-10.
Sutton, J. (2021). Developing empathy: 8 strategies & worksheets for becoming more empathetic.
Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/empathy-worksheets/