Being empathetic means entering the private perceptual world of the other and becoming truly at home in it.

Carl Rogers

The term ‘Empathy’, or Einfühlung, first arose in the mid-1800s from an aesthetic German philosopher, Robert Vischer. He defined empathy as a feeling evoked by observing beauty in the form of nature. ‘Empathy’ was later linked with psychology by Professor Theodor Lipps who used it to explain it not only as a way to experience inanimate objects but also as a way to understand other people’s mental states.

So what exactly does being empathetic mean?

Being empathetic is about being able to feel and understand other people’s emotions. It requires a certain level of self-awareness since you need to first understand your inner world in order to understand the emotional world of others. But one thing is certain: being empathetic makes you highly functional in society. It guides you into strong and meaningful connections in all important areas of your life. Being able to perceive and understand others’ emotions can make you successful in your social life, as well as in your career or business.

What determines how empathetic someone will be?

Three words: socialization during childhood. To acquire empathy, children must be able to understand and express their emotions. This is probably why women tend to be much more empathetic than men. At a very young age, girls are allowed to be in touch with their emotions, whereas boys are taught to “toughen up”. This is problematic for a simple reason: by suppressing their feelings, boys are unable to appreciate their emotions and learn from them. As a consequence, it makes them unable to understand feelings at all; not in themselves, and much less in others. 

There’s also another (slighter) reason why women tend to be more empathetic. Research conducted by British psychologist, Baron-Cohen indicates that there is a negative correlation between testosterone and empathy. Since there’s a lot more testosterone in men than in women, it can be easily concluded that women are usually much more empathetic than men. 

Genetics can also play another role in people being empathetic or not. This study found that 10 percent of differences in humans’ ability to empathize can be attributed to genetic variations. Some research advocate on genetics as the main factor, while others state that our environment and social interactions have a heavier weight on the scale.

More research is needed to understand the exact percentages of what determines empathy, but considering what has been researched so far, we could probably conclude something like this:

What determines empathy?

So perhaps being born a male, into a highly dysfunctional family with a very strong genetic background may not be a great combination ?.

Empathy can also differ from one person to another.

According to Daniel Goleman, renowned psychologist and author of Emotional Intelligence, the differences are as follows:

Cognitive Empathy

People who experience cognitive empathy understand what others are feeling. They can easily put themselves in someone else’s shoes. However, they are unable to own these feelings. This type of empathy can be referred to as ‘empathy by thought’ instead of empathy by feeling.

Emotional Empathy

People that experience emotional empathy, on the other hand, can feel what the other person is feeling. They are able to accompany others in their pain. This fuels a very strong connection, however too much emotional empathy can cause emotional burnout. This means becoming too overwhelmed and therefore being unable to respond properly. This type of empathy can be referred to as ’empathy by feeling’ and not by thought.

Compassionate Empathy

People who experience compassionate empathy can both understand and feel others’ emotions appropriately. They don’t become overloaded with emotion and this leads them to take actions that could mitigate pain in others. This type of empathy can be referred to as ’empathy by action’.

Levels of empathy

1st level

You could easily organize these types of empathies into different levels. On level 1, we have cognitive empathy. The person in question understands what you’re going through, but since he/she can’t connect with your emotions, they won’t feel impelled to alleviate your pain. Psychopaths and narcissists tend to experience cognitive empathy. They understand the pain they inflict, they just don’t care ?.

People without a mental disorder can also experience cognitive empathy at times. Sometimes it’s because they might’ve been too emotionally invested in other people’s affairs in the past, and have unconsciously decided to withdraw (They sort of shut down). Sort of like a defense mechanism. Or maybe the person in question never had a chance to understand feelings. Because empathy is taught at a very early age by caretakers that understand the importance of letting children express their emotions.

2nd level

On level 2 we have emotional empathy. On this level, we have people that are very much in touch with their emotions. A person with very high levels of emotional empathy can be referred to as an empath. Empaths sense and feel emotions as if they’re part of their own experience. Watching a sad movie, or the news, (or simply being around too many people?) can all be exhausting experiences for empaths.

Some empaths, however learn to handle their emotions in a way where they can be compassionate as well. They can reach the:

3rd level,

Compassionate empathy. This is the highest level of empathy. Because of one simple reason: it has all the components needed for experiencing empathy in a healthy manner. It goes from understanding to feeling, to action. Learning to experience this type of empathy leads to very strong and healthy relationships.

compassionate empathy

Take note: These levels are not strictly adhered to by a person. You may be able to experience cognitive empathy in some situations and be compassionate in others. Compassionate empathy can also be developed. We’ll talk about that in just a sec. Let’s consider this now:

Can someone with no empathy love?

Have you ever heard the expression, “Love yourself before you love someone else?” It’s not that people who lack empathy cannot love, it’s just that they can’t love you adequately because they don’t love themselves. People with low levels of empathy lack understanding of themselves and others. They’re hard with themselves, and their cruel and selfish attitudes towards others are just a reflection of their attitude towards their own selves.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, love can be defined as 1) strong affection based on kinship, admiration, or common interests, 2) sexual attraction or devotion and 3) unselfish benevolent concern.

People that don’t experience healthy levels of empathy are perfectly capable of feeling and manifesting strong affection, sexual attraction, devotion, and at times, unselfish benevolent concern. This means that people that lack empathy can love to some extent. They can feel and express certain manifestations of love, but probably won’t be able to connect with others at a deeper level. And perhaps, there are moments when a person with low levels of empathy won’t be able to make others feel respected or validated because the best manifestation of love is channeled through empathy and compassion. Through really understanding your partner, or a friend.

It’s quite simple:

If a relationship lacks empathy, it will most likely fail. 

Or in its defect, be very toxic.

Picture this: you’re friends with someone with very low levels of empathy. Let’s call this person Joe. Joe is unaware of his emotions, therefore is completely unaware of your emotions. That means that Joe can be at times, very hurtful towards you because after all, he is unaware of how and why his behaviors are hurtful.

Here are some of his attitudes:
  1. Sometimes Joe acts according to his needs and wants and even puts them over how they may make you feel. Whenever this happens you try to explain your feelings to him, but: 
  1. Joe is unable to understand how he made you feel. You take a pretty long time trying to explain what he did wrong and why he shouldn’t do it again, and he just doesn’t get it. This creates a distance between the two of you. He even tries to “flip the script” by blaming you for his actions. Or even mention an unrelated topic of a time you erred just to “get out of the bus.” On top of that, he doesn’t care about fixing what he did, because:
  1. Joe lacks compassion. Compassion arises from empathy. With no empathy there’s no compassion. 

Do you see how Joe’s lack of empathy can make you feel misunderstood, alone and depleted? 

On another hand, there’s another reason why empathy is the glue that keeps people together. Relationships become stronger through “thick and thin”. But there’s no “going through thin together” if there’s no empathy. If you’re unable to connect with others at a deeper level, at a vulnerable level, you are unable to provide strong emotional support. And it is with this strong emotional support that we can strengthen our connections with others.

Empathy is the fuel that drives connection.

Brene Brown

Is it possible, as an adult, to become more empathetic and compassionate?

Empathy is best nurtured during childhood, however, it can and will grow if efforts are made. In fact, research has shown that people can be trained to be more empathetic.

So where to start?

Start with yourself. The first rule of thumb for becoming more empathetic is to become self-aware of your own emotions. It’s just impossible to understand what others feel if you don’t understand these feelings yourself.

You must allow yourself to feel your emotion, to process them.

So try to reflect on your own emotions, and try to learn from them. Once you start healthily experiencing your own emotions, you gain certain inner strength that will help you handle your emotions, as well as others. Because being empathetic is about allowing yourself to be vulnerable. It is letting yourself feel what others feel in order to connect with them, accompany them in their pain, and take conscious actions to help relieve others’ pain.

But what if being in touch with others’ feelings is just too much to take?

Being triggered by a situation someone else is living is a strong indicator of your unresolved issues. Or if you hate someone else’s traits, this means that it’s because you possess these traits that you strongly dislike. What you hate in others is because you have it in ourselves. It works the same way with compassion. If you have compassion for yourself, you’ll have it for others.

Having compassion starts and ends with having compassion for all those unwanted parts of ourselves, all those imperfections that we don’t even want to look at.

Pema chodron

This is why you need to make a conscious effort to refrain from emitting any type of judgment and just focus on understanding the origin of your emotions. If there’s no judgment, and no harshness towards yourself, there won’t be any of that for others. How you treat yourself is a reflection of how you’ll treat others. ❤️

On that note, there’s an ancient Buddhist concept called emptiness. Emptiness is about seeing and perceiving things as they are. It’s about not categorizing a person as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Or about labeling a situation as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. This gives you freedom —an openness to understand reality as it is. That is, reality untarnished with your prejudices or your judgment. Once you start to perceive things with this ‘openness’, compassion will begin to bloom. Practicing this sure is a safe road to compassion.


Empathy is the secret recipe for building strong and fulfilling relationships in all areas of your life. In fact, research indicates that empathy is the main foundation for healthy and long-lasting relationships. Having strong connections as well as understanding emotions in yourself and others can give you an idea of how to handle stress as well as how to cope with anxiety and depression. This consequently leads to mental and physical health.

Care to find out how empathetic you are? Go ahead and take this test.

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Sarah Peláez is a Clinical Psychologist, Learning Therapist, and author of “The Psychology of Intuition.”

How to reference this article

Pelaez.S (2020). The Perks of being Empathetic PsycheSpot https://www.psychespot.com/emotional-awareness/the-perks-of-being-empathetic

APPA Style References

Chodron, P. (2000). When things fall apart: Heart advice for difficult times. Shambhala Publications.

Montag, C., Gallinat, J., & Heinz, A. (2008). Theodor Lipps and the concept of empathy: 1851–1914. American Journal of Psychiatry165(10), 1261-1261.

Rogers, C. R. (1995). A way of being. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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