Monday, 5 July 2010


Few days back a close friend of mine was deeply perturbed and wailful when he heard the news of the murder of a young boy and there was other news of child molestation which again made him sink into melancholic mood the whole day. Its not that he had heard about such incidents for the first time but he wondered where we as a society are heading towards! And this also made me ponder on the subject.

Has anyone of us even tried to answer this simple question that why do such things happen? Why we the human beings though said to be civilized are now heading towards adopting basal and beastly instincts??”

The answer is simple. We lack “Empathy”. Lack of empathy can lead to violence, abuse, murders and what not! Relationships can be completely destroyed in the absence of it. We are not ready to hear the point of view of other person. We fail to understand their perspectives and feelings leading to a complete thwarting of bonds whether familial, marital or humanistic. It was only lack of empathy that utmost atrocities were committed on Jews by the Nazis and they were trampled like insects! Absence of empathy leads to perpetual committing of inhuman acts.

So now let us see what Empathy is! Unfortunately this is a term which is often underused and not even understood by many. The word empathy is derived from German word "einfuhlung" which means "in-feeling” i.e. appreciating emotionally someone else’s feelings. There is a Greek word “empatheia”, which means “physical affection, passion, partiality”. The present day word Empathy comes to mean that we try to understand another’s person feelings and experiences in a subjective way while observing that person. It is not only a communication tool but also a skill if developed properly. It is listening to not only the verbal content of the talk but also listening to what has not been said i.e. the non verbal part of the communication. Being empathic we are able to live the emotional lives of others…it takes us outside ourselves…making us more humane and understanding.

It is different from the feeling of sympathy or”sahaanubhooti” or “hamdardi” which is highly valued in our culture. Sympathy becomes shared suffering. Another term pity should also not be confused with empathy. Pity often makes the other person “bechaaraa” (one who does not have any option left). Pity can even result in contempt and rejection when someone says,” You poor thing!” Both these feelings are disempowering. The feeling of sympathy makes us stand apart from others…it tries to place us at a higher pedestal than the other person who is suffering…we are then portrayed as kind of rescuer and the other person is left as “a helpless victim”. But empathy brings “samaanubhooti” or a feeling of oneness or sameness with the other person..... By developing empathy we try to provide an opportunity to the other person to find the inherent strength to cope up with challenges coming his/her way. We need not be the rescuers. We need to make others strong enough to fight their battles; we need to understand how they feel! Then only can there be resolution of problems in a healthy and optimum way. This enhances the self esteem of both the giver and the taker.

Though present innately, empathy is also a part of our moral development. We need to practise it. We need not try to “fix things” for those in problems, instead we need to trust their inner resources. We need not cry for them. Let them shed their tears and feel their feelings. We just have to be with them with open heart. We need to develop listening skills,tolerance and understanding that people have their own values, beliefs, religions, sexual preferences etc and they have right to believe what they want. To have empathy for other we first need to develop empathy towards ourselves. We need to recognise our own pain. We need to stop blaming others and overreacting. Then only the actual process of healing would start.


  1. " Tell them that, to ease them of their griefs,/ Their fear of hostile strokes, their aches, losses,/ Their pangs of love, with other incident throes/ That nature’s fragile vessel doth sustain/ In life’s uncertain voyage, I will some kindness do them."
    - shakespeare
    really this write-up or urs so brilliantly expresses the wonder that empathy can create!people do forget what we say and what we do but one can never forget how we made them feel....:
    to touch the pathos with "samanubhuti" is called for and this write up of urs empathitically strike a chord in my heart.......


  2. 'Samaanubhuti' is a wonderful article Abha ji... It means putting yourself in one's shoes to realise his pain.... It is indeed required in todays world for every small and big thing. Empathy is required to move the world in right direction... great one.

    On the lighter side...

    "Before hurting anyone put yourself into one's shoes....and walk for some distance....than you will realise... that u a another pair of shoes." :-)

  3. Very nice! Very informative indeed. The subtle differences among empathy, sympathy and pity are explained in simple terms. I must admit that I had never given such deep thought to the meanings of these three words.

    Reading this, I also understand where exactly I am standing on the way to become truly empathic. I realize that I have a long way to go -but I feeling I am on the track.

    Thanks for the article!