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What is empathy?

Empathy is someone’s ability to understand the feelings of another person. Empathy is often used interchangeably with sympathy; however, the two are completely different. Sympathy usually means feeling sorry for another person, whereas empathy means putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. Brené Brown says that sympathy and empathy is the difference between turning the lights on for someone when they’re in the dark (or trying to fix the problem), versus sitting in the dark with them (acknowledging that some problems don’t have solutions and the only thing to do is hold space for the person’s emotions). It can be difficult to be empathetic, but when we’re able to be empathetic, we’re able to be more compassionate and understand the other person’s worldview. 

How does empathy affect me?

Chances are, we have all had an experience with empathy. Maybe we had an experience where we wished someone was more empathetic to us or maybe we had an experience where we saw the benefit of having someone be empathetic to us. For instance, if you were sad because your friend moved away, would you rather someone tell you, “Cheer up, you have other friends” or “It sounds like this loss is very hard for you, and you’re grieving.” Empathy allows for connections with other people to facilitate a shared understanding of experiences while validating the other person’s experiences and emotions. By practicing empathy, we can expand our world views and learn how to sit with a wide range of emotions. And, chances are, by practicing empathy, it invites others to be more empathetic towards you. 

How can I be more empathetic?

Body: It is true that some people are naturally more empathetic than others. However, it’s important to know that empathy is not a talent, it is a skill and everyone learns to be more empathetic. One the first steps to be more empathetic is to check your biases. Are there any problematic views or prejudgments you hold? Are there any emotions you are not comfortable being around? What are some systemic issues that cause people to behave or think in a certain way? The second thing to do is check your privilege and forms of power you might hold which may make it difficult for you to be more empathetic with others. Other things you can do are to meet people who are different from you and expand your worldview. Get to know these people and the people around you and be present when you’re holding conversations with others. You can also volunteer with others for a shared cause or use your privilege to amplify the voices of others. Experts say that people who are more empathetic tend to be better friends, caregivers, and partners. 

This page is also part of the Roamers Therapy Glossary; a collection of mental-health related definitions that are written by our therapists.

While our offices are currently located at the South Loop neighborhood of Downtown Chicago, Illinois, we also welcome and serve clients for online therapy from anywhere in Illinois and Washington, D.C. Clients from the Chicagoland area may choose in-office or online therapy and usually commute from surrounding areas such as River North, West Loop, Gold Coast, Old Town, Lincoln Park, Lake View, Rogers Park, Logan Square, Pilsen, Bridgeport, Little Village, Bronzeville, South Shore, Hyde Park, Back of the Yards, Wicker Park, Bucktown and many more. You can visit our contact page to access detailed information on our office location.