Definition of empathy
1 : the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it
2 : the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this
Examples of empathy in a sentence
Poetic empathy understandably seeks a strategy of identification with victims … —Helen Vendler, New Republic, 5 May 2003
This is tough love with a vengeance, but what a gruesome view of God's saints bereft of all empathy. —Sidney Callahan, Commonweal, 19 Apr. 2002
Enter a new inmate … a giant black man with a gift of preternatural empathy; he can literally suck the pain out of people. —Richard Corliss, Time, 13 Dec. 1999
But in all those years of young womanhood, my Do-Unto-Others empathy never extended beyond sharing a trolley seat. —Lois Mark Stalvey, The Education of a WASP, 1989
He felt great empathy with the poor.
His months spent researching prison life gave him greater empathy towards convicts.
What is the difference between empathy and compassion?
Some of our users are interested in the difference between empathy and compassion. Compassion is the broader word: it refers to both an understanding of another’s pain and the desire to somehow mitigate that pain:
Our rationalizations for lying (or withholding the truth)—"to protect her," "he could never handle it”—come more out of cowardice than compassion.
— Eric Utne, Utne Reader, November/December 1992
Sometimes compassion is used to refer broadly to sympathetic understanding:
Nevertheless, when Robert Paxton's "Vichy France" appeared in a French translation in 1973, his stark and devastating description ... was rather badly received in France, where many critics accused this scrupulous and thoughtful young historian either of misinterpreting the Vichy leaders' motives or of lacking compassion.
— Stanley Hoffmann, The New York Times Book Review, 1 Nov. 1981
Empathy refers to the ability to relate to another person’s pain vicariously, as if one has experienced that pain themselves:
For instance, people who are highly egoistic and presumably lacking in empathy keep their own welfare paramount in making moral decisions like how or whether to help the poor.
— Daniel Goleman, The New York Times, 28 Mar. 1989
"The man thought all this talk was fine, but he was more concerned with just getting water. And, if I was going to be successful on this mission, I had to remember what his priorities were. The quality you need most in United Nations peacekeeping is empathy."
— Geordie Elms, quoted in MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, Autumn 1992
In some cases, compassion refers to both a feeling and the action that stems from that feeling:
Compassion, tenderness, patience, responsibility, kindness, and honesty are actions that elicit similar responses from others.
— Jane Smiley, Harper’s, June 2000
while empathy tends to be used just for a feeling:
She is also autistic, a disability that she argues allows her a special empathy with nonhuman creatures.
— Tim Flannery, The New York Review of Books, 29 April 2009
Did You Know?
In the 19th century, Charles Dickens counted on producing an empathetic response in his readers strong enough to make them buy the next newspaper installment of each novel. Today, when reading a novel such as A Tale of Two Cities, only the most hard-hearted reader could fail to feel empathy for Sidney Carton as he approaches the guillotine. One who empathizes suffers along with the one who feels the sensations directly. Empathy is similar to sympathy, but empathy usually suggests stronger, more instinctive feeling. So a person who feels sympathy, or pity, for victims of a war in Asia may feel empathy for a close friend going through the much smaller disaster of a divorce.
Origin and Etymology of empathy
Greek empatheia, literally, passion, from empathēs emotional, from em- + pathos feelings, emotion — more at pathos
First Known Use: 1909
EMPATHY Defined for English Language Learners
Definition of empathy for English Language Learners
: the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else's feelings
EMPATHY Defined for Kids
Definition of empathy for Students
: the understanding and sharing of the emotions and experiences of another person He has great empathy toward the poor.
Medical Definition of empathy
1: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it
2: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for empathy
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