What Is Empathy?

The word empathy is a relatively new one, translated from the German word Einf├╝hlung, which arose in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It means to feel as one with, as an esthetic sympathy or an emotional resonance between two people. It is akin to the concept of like strings on a musical instrument, tuned to the same frequency, responding to each other and reinforcing the sound even though they are at opposite ends of a room.

The term empathy was first used in relation to the arts to describe how a person felt and was affected by listening to a piece of music, or looking at a painting or sculpture. If you have ever been moved to tears by a dramatic performance, watching a crying child wrenched from his mother’s arms, knowing and feeling her emotions, you have experienced empathy. It has evolved over the years to include a kind of resonance between individuals as well. Some see it as a kind of intuitive sense, or extrasensory perception, but it could also be said that empathy is simply the art of using imagination to experience the feeling of others as if they were your own.

It is perhaps this sense of empathy that separates the healers from those who merely treat symptoms when it comes to restorative and therapeutic professions. A doctor may be educated, dedicated and sympathetic with his or her patients but, unless he or she can empathize with them, the doctor may be lacking a key component in his or her practice.

The Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy

The terms empathy and sympathy may seem at first to be one and the same, but they are very different from one another. Empathy is more ethereal, more experiential than sympathy. Sympathy is something you must think about and apply to a given situation or person. The same could be said about compassion or pity. You think about the situation, register it in your mind, and then express a feeling about it such as: “That must have been terrible,” or “How sad,” “How wonderful,” etc. With empathy, one feels it in his or her own body. The empathetic experience is one of visceral sentience, of sharing an emotion or feeling.

Sympathy implies a distance, an observation of an experience. You feel sorry for the person, or perhaps pity them. With empathy you feel with the other person; you are putting yourself in their place. It may take imagination or having a similar experience to feel empathy. For some, empathy seems to just come naturally.

Therapeutic support groups, such as alcoholics anonymous, debtors anonymous or weight watchers may be successful in part because of empathetic members who have common experiences and can truly identify with one another’s situation. Sympathy expressed by a psychologist or caring friend may be helpful, but the person may still feel alone in his or her experience. Empathy can make it more of a shared experience.

Nurturing One’s Own Empathetic Self

On the website Empathy Lessons, author Elizabeth Fink lists five values needed to be empathetic: Listening, Sensitivity, Honesty, Imagination and Appreciation. They are values important for effective massage therapists as well and can be used to improve client therapist relationships.

  • Listening – How can you be effective as a healer if you are not listening to your clients? Listen with ears and hands, with focus – and discipline. Do you greet your clients with the usual “Hi, how are you?” not expecting a response beyond “Fine” or “Okay”? This is not really a give and take of listening and communicating. Truly listening and offering constructive feedback, whether it be in greeting, evaluating intake, or during a massage session may help them see their own problems – the pain, ache or injury – in a different light. It may help solve the problem or ease the pain. Don’t be robotic in listening. People know when someone is not listening. It is important to be sincere, to be in the here and now when communicating with your clients.
  • Sensitivity – Be sensitive to the feelings of others; don’t ignore or trivialize them. Become a feelings detective. This has a lot to do with effective communication and connects with effective listening. It is insensitive not to call clients back in a timely manner. It is insensitive to show up late, or not at all for scheduled appointments. Taking clients for granted is insensitive or criticizing them behind their backs. Doing the same basic routine on all clients is also insensitive and implies that all clients are the same and you have not been sensitive to their individual needs.
  • Honesty – Honesty, along with sensitivity, doesn’t always come easy. You need to pay close attention to the words coming out of your mouth. You can still be tactful, but honest. Give honest explanations, especially with regard to your work. Clients can feel dishonesty when you work on them and when you speak with them. Think about who are you protecting if feel you must? Honesty is very much a choice and can greatly affect your therapeutic relationship.
  • Imagination – Can you imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes? Can you listen to the stories of others and relate to their experience and feelings? Are you listening with an open mind, or with judgment from a distance? Are you wondering about motives? Imagination without judgment or competition is the key and not always easy. Imagine you are them, not just observing from afar.
  • Appreciation – It is important to appreciate clients. It is because of them you are working and that you are able to be an effective healer. Massage therapy is often described as a dance between the therapist and the client. It is the perception of understanding the mind and body, combined with the knowledge learned, in how to apply the best techniques and modalities. Saying thank you, sincerely and honestly, to your client goes a long way and often makes the day better for someone. Sincere thank yous and the showing of appreciation spread joy.

The Need for Balance Between Empathy and Professional Detachment

While empathy is an important tool in communicating effectively, there is also a need for professional detachment. You need to find a balance between the two. With unrestrained empathy there is the danger of crossing an ethical boundary. Being extremely detached may indicate that you are desensitized to the client’s situation. You may even appear arrogant.

Another danger associated with empathy, especially with regard to a therapeutic relationship, is countertransference. This could lead to feeling of identifying with a client deeply, and become so connected to him or her that you offer your services for free or are unable to let go of the feeling between clients. If this seems to be happening, the best thing is to speak with a mentor or other support person.

Empathy supposes a fusion between self and other, between subject and object. In massage therapy and other healing professions, you also need to be able to withdraw from that connection and move on to another client.

Empathy can be a helpful dimension to your therapeutic practice. By nurturing it and keeping it in balance, you may be able to add to your effectiveness as a healer.