The Empathy Foundation Network

Growing empathy for a peaceful world

I am wondering if empathy implies viewing the other person with a kind of respect which "elevates" the other. IE seeing the best in the other this aspect present in all or most times that we feel empathy ???
I'm thinking that sympathy for me usually does not contain that kind of respect...and also does not have the same benefits as empathy.
Contemplating the visits I'm having with my elderly mother lately which have become very sweet, and I'm not sure what is going on for us [trying to understand it] but we seem to "enter a space" together, spend a little time there and then I leave and we both feel really happy and nourished.. Is this empathy ???????????

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This feels like an important distinction. In my pursuit of compassion, i have struggled with trying to feel empathy, in some more challenging situations, and finding myself feeling pity instead. When i think of an experience that "elevates the other", it feels like something that would be much closer to empathy than pity.

Perhaps empathy combined with reverence, elevates them. Generating a real heartfelt appreciation for who this person is and what they are going through, helping us to understand where they are coming from in the choices and behaviours we're interacting with, are aware of or impacted by. Really feeling who they are, as the wondrous being we share the planet with at this momentous time on earth. Perhaps this is not empathy alone but comes from empathy.

I find dictionary definitions both useful and limiting, so i'll add it here to further the discussion. (my emphasis)

Main Entry: em·pa·thy
Function: noun
Etymology: Greek empatheia, literally, passion, from empathe emotional, from em- + pathos feelings, emotion -- more at PATHOS
Date: 1850
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
Tathra & Jane, I'm enjoying the pondering of the boundaries of empathy, pity and compassion which you have started. I felt myself nourished by your description Jane of the space into which you and your mother are drawn and from which you draw happiness and nourishment. I sense a quality of connection there that seems beyond your outer roles and all the trappings of who you are seen to be in or by the world. There does to me seem to be that quality to empathy which goes beyond the usual ways of relating that are bound by the usual limits of a relationship. And yet it can be almost a secret connection; the outer relationship may seem entirely ordinary while there can be a sweet feeling of energy flowing between two people, that is beyond the apparent relationship.
Perhaps it is the mutuality which is distinct from compassion. Maybe compassion is the highest of all as it is given without anything being received. It seems one can feel compassion from afar whereas empathy is an exchange between people who are present to each other. Maybe that's overdoing it. Surely empathy can and must be felt without any expectation of connection occurring? And yet it seems that true empathy is almost irresistible - if true empathy is given a spark of connection will occur. No that's surely nonsense! I'm tempted to delete all this, but will leave it. It has opened up more questions than answers and trust that the wisdom of the group will expand my understanding.

When I strongly feel what I believe to be empathy I receive so much that i don't think it is at all 'virtuous', it's such a pleasure. I want more empathy in my life because I love the feeling of it! I love exploring it! I am sure we'll never define what empathy is in any fixed or complete way, and I'm just as sure that study and reflection on empathy is of great benefit and helps us to grow more of it.

One experience I have of empathy is a sweet feeling which supports an unusual willingness to be with a person whose company I would not normally seek, even someone who might normally be unappealing to me, and to do things for the person that might otherwise be repugnant. Empathy can overcome my usual likes and dislikes. When empathy is activated it can feel as if a person is a beloved child to me even if only momentarily. There is a high level of acceptance of the person exactly as they are.
I love this discussion! I'm not sure i agree fully with your concept of compassion Alice, we have an image of compassion as being selfless, even one-sided but i wonder if the idea that empathy is more about connection and understanding is an extension of our own sense of what empathy is.

On some level it's what it is for each of us, tho having a common understanding can strengthen our communication of it to others to spread it.

When i read your discussion of empathy, i replace the word compassion and it still fits, so for me the distinction is not clear or established. Dictionaries consider compassion to be synonymous with both empathy and pity. How disappointing! There is also a placement of empathy in the intellectual or imaginative realm. Perhaps this is indicative of the current state of emotional evolution we're at collectively and that this holon of empathy advocates see it as more than that and that we can grow our emotional capacity to go beyond clinical definitions in the wider realms of how empathy and compassion are understood. Perhaps someday soon this will be reflected in common understanding institutions like Wikipedia & it's Wicktionary.

Here are two definitions from Wicktionary:


1. Deep awareness of the suffering of another, coupled with the wish to relieve it

[edit] Synonyms

* empathy, pity, tenderheartedness, sorrow


1. the intellectual identification of the thoughts, feelings, or state of another person
2. capacity to understand another person's point of view or the result of such understanding

Wikipedia has an article on:

We can use these as guides but the real question is what does it mean to me/us? What do we think empathy and compassion are? How do we see them as distinct yet related? I feel a mind map coming on!

I'm loving the conversation too. I haven;t fully imbibed all your contributions yet and look foreward to dong that. my responses are to what stands out at this moment. This feels like a spontaneous study group and in the process of inquiring into it we could also be eveloping a process for the study of empathy.

I'm not sure anything i wrote last night actually made sense even to me! I came to look at it just now with the thought that i would delete it until i had thought it through further. I'm glad you replied and helped to allow my unclarity to stay out there. I totally agree that it is our experience of empathy that is the real inquiry here - and then how we cultivate more of it in its 'truest' forms.

There may be no distinction between empathy and compassion, however the words will conjure up different responses from each of us. Which means of course that there is a distinction for at least some of us, and that the boundary between them is not the same for all. I like the idea that we are mapping empathy - examining the qualities and experiences that are part of this field of empathy/pity/compassion (and what about sympathy?) I'm imagining a number of overlapping circles or ovals like a venn diagram and some things are in common to all of these, and some belong with one or two but not all. Perhaps something like that would help us to clarify these distinctions even more. We could start with a brainstorm or listing of many things that seem to be part of one or all of these and then we could ave go and putting them under the heading(s) they seem to belong to. Something like that.
What a great discussion. When I am in the state that I call empathy I forget about myself a lot. My focus is on the other person. I do not experience any sense of comparison - unlike pity which somehow still has me in the story in the sense that I feel sorry for you and what's implied is "I'm glad it's not me" to some extent. With empathy I'm not in the story except as as a vehicle that may be able to relieve anothers suffering in some way.
Another thought. In counselling empathy is not considered "useful" unless the other person is aware of it ie unless it is expressed to that person in a way they can understand and receive and by implication use for their own betterment.
Thanks Rita, at 1st I couldn,t get the "forget about myself" part but now as I re-read I'm saying's as if you have left your shell, travelled across the room and are sitting totally with the other person. And I can imagine how powerfully supported the other person must feel right then. You are listening so intently..........a great skill.
I love the great minds contributing into our pool of discovery [wisdom]. Thanks and see you soon.
Thankyou Tathra,
I find your comments stimulating and helpful especially when you teased out the "elevating" aspect so beautifully [I love "wondrous being we share planet with... very rich and real ]
Also your comments re. the IMAGINATION plus dictionary mention are ringing loud bells in my understanding. An underestimated incredibly valuable capacity we have perhaps. Maybe dis-connected people who cause harm lack this.

I've run out of time, but am feeling that we are uncovering gold ................lets add to the exploration we have started.
I have loved your discussion Alice, thanks.
Especially the one you wanted to delete ! "Secret connection"; "sweet energy flowing when not apparent, and when you don't have an attraction to start with".......isn't that an exciting discovery.And the "pleasure"aspect I am resonating with in relation to children playing [and our desire to play].
lots more to exchange but out of time .....thank you.
Hi there! I'm new to the group and was guided straight away to this discussion .... and all the time the word "empowerment" came into my mind - I haven't looked deeper but I can't help thinking that empathy empowers on a certain level - maybe through "understanding" and respect - there just seems to be more connection through empathy than through sympathy, which for me gives a sense of disconnection .... the connection you, Jane, described with your mum sounds wonderful - there sure seems to be a very deep connection there :-)
Hi Julia, and welcome !
I am really intrigued by your words EMPOWERMENT through UNDERSTANDING and RESPECT !!!!!
By re-visiting the experience with my Mum, I think you might have hit on an important aspect of empathy.
Empowered for what though? I mean "how"? Well, mutual nourishment [self and other] for one comes to mind. { that's pretty powerful isn't it ?}
Julia did you mean the power granted through understanding ,love and respect ? So, for eg. unconditionally loving our kids grows a sense of power inside them ??? A sense of "being-ness" that implies power ?....... You have really opened up a contemplation of the notion of power in the context of empathy for me....Thankyou !

"Watching" the scene of Mum and I in that room, I am reminded of something very simple and natural in children . The picture is of 2 small children playing happily absorbed together, unself-conscious, united in their being together,{ ie. in a state of Empathy} and immersed in their shared imagination.
This is a natural behaviour which makes us feel very good. It empowers us to re-vitalise our selves.
No wonder we seek PLAY. Perhaps that is why play is a pleasure. I am now wondering if all play contains empathy or just some. I will have to think about that.

Thankyou for this conversation , it is a joy !


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