Empathy in Humanism

Posted by Marissa Langseth | Posted on October 21, 2019

What is sympathy, empathy, altruism in humanism?

The English dictionary contains many words that either have the same meaning, almost have the same meanings, opposite in meanings, pronounced the same way but of different meanings, and so forth. Thus we have what we call homonyms, antonyms, heteronyms and synonyms.
Today I would like to talk about two words that are commonly misused and/or interchanged on a daily basis. The choice of these words is due to the fact that both involve relating with peers, family, or other people.
Sympathy and Empathy. These words are used daily anywhere and everywhere in all walks of life. They may convey joy or sorrow or resentment, but these two words have entirely different meanings but quite overlapping each other.
When do we sympathize? Why do humans sympathize?
To sympathize means we share the feelings of another person. We feel compassion or pity and we feel the same feelings that the other person has at the moment. Although crying is a behavior, we tie it up to feelings so that when a person is sad and crying, we too cry because we feel their loss, or heartache. Compassion is an intense form of sympathy.
Sympathy is a feeling of expression to show care and concern for someone who is often close and is coupled by a wish to see this person better off or happier.It is more of coming from the heart. It implies a greater sense of shared similarities together with a profound personal engagement. However, sympathy, unlike empathy, does not involve a shared perspective or shared emotions, and while the outward expressions of sympathy do convey caring and concern, they do not convey shared distress. Sympathy and empathy often lead to each other, but not all the time.
For instance, it is possible to sympathize with such things as a pinned horse in the stables, a cat up a tree, and a bird caught in a branch of a tree, but not, strictly speaking, to empathize with them. Conversely, psychopaths who have little to none sympathy for their victims can nonetheless make use of empathy to torture them. Sympathy should also be distinguished from benevolence which is entirely a much more detached and impartial attitude.
Compassion, or “suffering alongside” someone, is more engaged than simple empathy, and is associated with an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object. With empathy, a person shares the emotions of a grieving person; with compassion it does not only involve the sharing of emotions but also elevate them into a universal and transcending experience. Compassion, which builds upon empathy, is one of the main motivators of altruism.
Empathy is a term we use for the ability to understand other people’s feelings as if we were having them ourselves. The empathic feeling may be brief, and the person feeling it is said to “put themselves in the other person’s place.” Empathy therefore is a deeper feeling, but sympathy can be also heartfelt. Empathy means “feeling into” — the ability to project ones personality into another person and more fully understand that person. Empathy allows you to imagine what it’s like to be a mother who lost a husband, a friend who lost a twin, a father who lost a son, a homeless who has no food to eat.
Empathy is a stronger feeling because a person puts himself in the place of another and understand someone else’s feelings by identifying with them. With empathy, you put yourself in another’s shoes, often feeling things more deeply than feeling sympathetic.
In 1909, the psychologist Edward Titchener translated the German Einfühlung(‘feeling into’) into English as ‘empathy’. Empathy can be defined as a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being. It involves, first, seeing someone else’s situation from his perspective, and second, sharing his emotions, including, if any, his distress.
Most often, empathy is confused with pity, sympathy, and compassion, which are each reactions to the plight of others. There is a feeling of pity, a discomfort for the distress of another person and often has paternalistic or condescending overtones. With pity, sometimes a person thinks that the object of pity is not deserving of its plight and he is unable to prevent, reverse or overturn it. Pity is a less engaged feeling with little or more than acknowledgement of the plight of its object
According to Neel Burton M.D. psychiatrist/philosopher, “to share in someone else’s perspective, I must do more than merely put myself into his position. Instead, I must imagine myself as him, and, more than that imagine me as him in the particular situation in which he finds himself. I cannot empathize with an abstract or detached feeling. To empathize with a particular person, I need to have at least some knowledge of who he is and what he is doing or trying to do. As John Steinbeck wrote, ‘It means very little to know that a million Chinese are starving unless you know one Chinese who is starving”.
According to the Health Psychology Consultancy published on August 11, 2011, psychologists, counselors, nurses, or anyone in a caring profession require EMPATHY.
According to psychologist and pioneer in the field of emotions, Paul Ekman, Ph.D., three distinct types of empathy have been identified:
· Cognitive Empathy: Also called “perspective taking,” cognitive empathy is the ability to understand and predict the feelings and thoughts of other by imagining one’s self in their situation.
· Emotional Empathy: Closely related to cognitive empathy, emotional empathy is the ability to actually feel what another person feels or at least feel emotions similar to theirs. In emotional empathy, there is always some level of shared feelings. Emotional empathy can be a trait among persons diagnosed with Asperger syndrome.
· Compassionate Empathy: Driven by their deep understanding of the other person’s feelings based on shared experiences, compassionately empathic people make actual efforts to help.
Empathy can give purpose to our daily lives and enables us to comfort people in distress. However, it can also do harm. Empathy can lead us to misplaced anger when we mistakenly perceive that one person is threatening another person we care for.
A good example of which is, you go to the beach and you think that this one person is staring at your daughter for a long time. Even if the man did not make any move or his face remained expressionless, your empathic understanding of what “might” he be thinking of doing to your daughter makes you angry, and that is dangerous.
Danish family therapist Jesper Juul has referred to empathy and aggression as “existential twins.”
For years, psychologists have reported cases of overly empathetic patients endangering the well-being of themselves and their families by giving away their life savings to random needy individuals. There was this case of a married couple both of them medical doctors, who gave up everything including their lives in the United States in the lure of helping a certain group of people in the Philippines.
Some overly empathetic people who feel they are somehow responsible for the distress of others have developed a sense of guilt based on that feeling. According to psychologist Lynn O’Connor, persons who regularly act out of empathy-based guilt, or “pathological altruism,” tend to develop mild depression in later-life.
While some people confuse that they have some feeling of love instead of empathy, love can make any relationship — good or bad — better, empathy cannot and can even hasten the end of a strained relationship. Essentially, love can cure, empathy cannot.
Rehabilitation and trauma counselor Mark Stebnicki coined the term “empathy fatigue” to refer to a state of physical exhaustion resulting from repeated or prolonged personal involvement in the chronic illness, disability, trauma, grief, and loss of others. According to Stebnicki, “high touch” professionals like doctors, nurses, lawyers, and teachers tend to suffer from empathy fatigue.
Which is therefore appropriate in a given situation, to empathize or sympathize? They are both separate feelings that overlap each other a bit. With empathy, we understand the feelings of others but do not necessarily share them. It allows us to imagine what it is like to be me, him, or her. There is a feeling of “I am you”.
With sympathy, there is a sharing of the feelings of the other person. We cry when they are crying, we feel lonely when they are lonely. We tell them “I feel sorry for you”.
In as much as both words involve feelings, one is deeper than the other. There are more concerns though with too much empathy that could affect one’s thinking.
If you ask me, just like food, we need to have just the right servings for a healthy body. The same goes with feelings, a well balanced feeling that don’t go off the ledge is healthy and make us compassionate humans.

Therefore, one cannot be a humanist without empathy or sympathy.

*Sources:
Dr Todd Grande – finished his Ph.D., Counselor Education and Supervision from Regent University, Masters, Community Counseling from Wilmington University, Bachelors in Psychology from Excelsior College. He was an associate professor at Wilmington University, Newark, Delaware. He is also a mental health counselor at Survivors of Abuse in Recovery (SAR) in Newark, DE.
Neel Burton M.D. – Psychiatrist, philosopher, writer and wine lover who lives in Oxford England. He is a Fellow of Green-Templeton College, Oxford, and the recipient of the Society of Authors’ Richard Asher Prize, the British Medical Association’s Young Authors’ Award, the Medical Journalists’ Association Open Bood Award, and a Best in the World Gourmand Award.
James Ross, MD, MHPE, FRCPC – Department of Psychiatry, Western University, Victoria Hospital, London, Ontario, Canada
Chris Watling, MD, PhD, FRCPC – Department of Clinical Neurological Sciences, Western University, London, Ontario, Canada; Centre for Education Research and Innovation (CERI), Western University, London, Ontario, Canada
Dr Paul Ekman – Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Adelphi University. He was an emotion psychologist. He traveled to Papua New Guinea to study the nonverbal behavior of the Fore people. He chose these people as they were an isolated, Stone Age culture located in the South East Highlands. Ekman’s research provided the strongest evidence to date that facial expressions are universal. He was a UCSF Professor and Prolific Writer
Jesper Juul – was a Danish family therapist who formed the Kempler Institute of Scandinavia with US psychiatrist Walter Kempler as the director. Many publications are credited to his name.
James Dawes – a professor in American literature, countercultures, human rights, literary and language theory, violence and trauma, literature and philosophy at Macalester College and the author of many Human Rights books of which he won the international Human Rights Book Award. He was a Junior Fellow at the Society of Fellows, Harvard University. He received his Ph.D. in English Literature from Harvard University and his Masters in Philosophy from Cambridge University.

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About The Author

Merlie Figura Hammer

Degree in Bachelor of Science in Chemistry – Iloilo, Philippines
Certificate for Physical Therapy Aide – Woodland Hills, CA
Certificate for General Office Procedures – Jerusalem, Israel
Healthcare Underwriter for Many Years – now retired
Born and raised in Iloilo, Philippines
Resides in California, USA

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