#47 Learning about Empathy

“One doesn’t have to operate with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and understanding are sufficient” Charles M. Blow

I’ve always had an interest in psychology, and for a number of reasons, I’ve been reading a lot about empathy recently. Today’s new thing was learning about the two different types of empathy, and what they mean.

According to an article written by Steve Taylor in Psychology Today, shallow empathy is the ‘most common’ definition of empathy – a cognitive ability, where you are able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, see things through another person’s eyes, or to read their emotions. Steve says,

“As the psychologist Paul Gilbert points out, empathy in this sense doesn’t necessarily imply “goodness.”  According to Gilbert, empathy is what makes torture possible. Without empathy, a torturer would have no concept of the suffering he is causing. Because he can “put himself in another person’s shoes” he knows that he is causing pain”

The second type of empathy is what Steve refers to as ‘deep empathy’. This is where you can feel what the other person is experiencing, or to enter that mind space of another person.

In the publication ‘Transpersonal knowing: Exploring the horizon of consciousness’ Psychology Professor, Tobin Hart explains this type of empathy as when;

“…(the) understanding of the other deepens beyond what I can easily explain. I seem to experience the other’s feelings directly in my own body or recognize patterns, histories, or meanings that do not appear to come from interpreting the words and gestures that we exchange’ (p. 253)

While you can still be cognitively empathetic and torture someone, if you are empathetic on this emotional level, torture would be impossible. You would be unable to torture another person, or harm someone else intentionally, as you “recoil from other people’s pain in the same way that you recoil from your own pain”

Unfortunately, being empathetic in this deeper emotional sense – especially if you tend to be an over empathetic, can also lead to introspection, intimacy issues, self-flagellation, anxiety and depression, more often than for less empathic people. Mindful have done a really good article about avoiding the empathy trap for anyone who wants to know more.

Learning all this was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me for a personal reason. I once had someone close to me in my life that claimed to be empathetic, and on the surface level was able to be kind (doing favours for friends, offering a friendly ear in a crisis etc), but was also able to be callous, emotionally unavailable, and able to inflict psychological distress on another person.

I had always struggled with how someone can believe that they are empathetic when you can categorically see that they are not.  Whenever I confronted that person with why their behavior was upsetting, they were genuinely confused. They genuinely believed they were a good person, to the point that I felt depressed, and misjudged my own feelings.

That person is long gone from my life, but now (with the benefit of hindsight) I understand why it’s so difficult to articulate to someone like that. It just can’t be done if they lack the depth of empathy to actually understand what you are saying!

More information on empathy can be found here on Psychology Today.


For gaining new knowledge and future proofing my life – 5 out of 5 stars 

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