Empathy: It’s Not You, It’s Me

The English word “empathy” — a word similar to, yet distinct from, the word “sympathy” — was coined by E.B. Titchener in 1909 as the translation of the German term “Einfühlung” (or “feeling into”). How did such a fundamental human emotion elude the English language for so long?

Often, we see or hear what we construct in our minds, rather than what is actually before us. Our perceptions of others’ emotions may operate similarly. Empathy forms a cornerstone of intellectual movements such as Design Thinking and Social Emotional Learning, which suggests that thought leaders have found that humans can improve the ways in which they get in touch with the emotions of others. Conversational tools (such as “what I heard you say is”) augment empathy by enabling the listener to tune into the intended message of the speaker, as well as enabling the speaker to tune into how the listener may feel. Similarly, replacing statements such as “you excluded me” with “I felt excluded” enables conversationalists to calibrate their perceptions of each other’s emotions.

Interest in the science of empathy continues to grow rapidly. Scientists use tools like functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan the brain for the neurological basis of empathy. Curiously, scholars neglect the science of those seeking empathy. Why?

Humans tend to desire empathy from others. Storytelling and story-listening traits likely co-evolved to promote meme transmission, which may be the reason that kids and adults respond so strongly to written, oral, or video stories. Analogously, we can intuit that the empathy trait may have co-evolved with an empathy-seeking trait. Seeking empathy may be an adaptation produced during human social evolution to enhance fitness.

Strikingly, no English word precisely captures the trait of “desiring empathy”. No English word captures the traits of “wanting compassion” and “looking for validation”. The closest approximation of a word that captures the general feeling of seeking empathy, compassion or validation is “needy”, a colloquial term used in pop psychology. If an empathizer is someone who empathizes, what term describes the recipient of empathy — empathee? In a perverse irony, scientists and linguists who study empathy, but overlook the would-be recipient of empathy, may exemplify a lack of empathy.

Originally published in The Journal of the Palo Alto Institute in Fall 2011.