Learning Empathy: Why Do We Need It?

Learning Empathy: Why Do We Need It?

Empathy is an important element for the fulfillment of one putting self into another, hence its significant role in good interpersonal relationships. In counseling learning, all teaching approaches from the various disciplines agree on the key to the building therapeutic relationship as the therapist’s empathy – the awareness of the feelings, meaning of words of the client, in other words, understanding of what is going on within the client’s world.

Certainly empathy is the bread of human relationships, yet across my psychology and psychotherapy training, I came across with research papers and scholars who have clearly recognized empathy as one of the principal elements in psychotherapy. Yet few mention empathy’s traces and impacts in the daily relationships. As soon as the client leaves the counseling room, he/she then is again swallowed by the continuous conflicts and challenges. Clearly empathy has an interlocking relationship to the building human relationships. A question then arrives at me, “How do I explain about empathy and its significance not only in the psychotherapeutic notion, yet as the extended and broadened understanding?”

As thinking about empathy based on its mark at the linkage between the individuals, I come to perceive such matter in the evolutionary and humanity perspective. Even each individual is unique with own subjective interpretation and judgments of the world and people, in psychotherapeutic term, the own frame of reference, I believe that no one can survive by holding onto the singular subjective framework. From the biological functions to the social, cultural developments, we rely on “togetherness”. And so to fulfill the successful human grouping, which brings the corresponding human development and advancement, one needs to accept the different perspectives.

How do we connect when we are so different? While human beings tend to connect, one cannot deny the increasing barrier not just on overcoming own ego of human individuality, yet also the social pressure. Across centuries people have progressively settled in the different sorts of public and professional teamwork. Yet the emotional toll remain the more difficult to face. Even psychological and psychotherapeutic development has taken us past the ignorance of “psychological well-being”, I find that we are forcefully turned to victims of money, fame and power which polarize us into the “professional/outer” and “suppressed/inner” selves. We become detached with our understanding and care for the others – we are suffocated with our own sufferings too, and that greatly represses what goes in the heart. Empathy seems to be luxury product.

Yet perhaps this is the reason we need empathy. We may look around and notice the apparently increasing exclaims of “You/He/She/They do not understand me!” in many relationships. As a counselor, I faced a client whose parents did not accept his troubling behavior as caused by his ADHD tendency. Another client was bitter over the “cold wars” with the in-laws. And nearly no clients not admitted their distress over someone’s causing of suffering. Whether the person is the victim or the perpetrator, all seem to fall in the sad and harsh loneliness of own feelings and views being rejected, neglected and not being understood.

It is indeed a difficult journey for people to come in terms with their own circumstances. To bear the suffering in the daily life is one issue; yet to fully open up , and keep going back to the whole experience, particularly with another person and let alone a stranger, is another matter. Only under the environment of empathic understanding, I believe, is how people feel attended to, understood without the injection of subjectivity and judgment. They no longer feel isolated, strange, or worthless, and become willing to reveal own inner worlds and feelings. Such gradual openness of those people directly relates to the relationship dynamics – the enhanced understanding of each other’s world. 

I believe empathy exists in our normal relationships, and it is the key to the better understanding between one and another. Indeed it is inevitable of our uniqueness and hence our subjectivity. It is possible that we can open ourselves to the new experiences, and be more easily adapted to the increasingly things experienced. Yet viewing our limited lives in such limitless world, we can only conform to accept the others’ differences.
Indeed it takes effort for us to understand others’ perspectives. In many common phrases, one ought to stand in someone’s shoes, which requires our removal of our own ones, and the action of putting on others’ shoes. I would also share the description quoted from Patterson’s book, The Therapeutic Relationship, in which he described empathy by using a novel character’s words (Novel: To Kill a Mockingbird),

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. “
 Recently I also read a quote which reflects the implicit act of empathy,
“Sorry is nothing, the real apology comes when you can look in their eyes and see they hurt themselves just as much.”
Perhaps the beginning of empathy begins as we look at others’ eyes, and really feel how they are feeling. Only when we open ourselves.
In the coming posts, I hope to share my thoughts and experiences with empathy, not just as a counselor, but also as a person.


C. H. Patterson. 1985. The Therapeutic Relationship. Monterey, California: Brooks/Cole.

H. Lee. 1960. To Kill a mockingbird. Philadelphia: Lippincott.

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