Reimagining Empathy

Empathy is generally defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. This often involves imagining oneself in the other person’s situation and experiencing the emotions that the other person is feeling. It also includes active listening and paying attention to nonverbal cues to gain a deeper understanding of another person’s emotional state (Davis, 1983).

However, it is possible to reimagine empathy not just as understanding the experience of the other, but also as “taking in the other.” This could mean being fully present with the other person, without judgment or distraction, and allowing oneself to be affected by their emotions. Instead of simply imagining what the other person is feeling, this approach to empathy involves experiencing those feelings directly, albeit in a different way than the other person. This can create a deeper sense of connection and understanding between people and can help to build stronger relationships (Batson, 2009).

In this sense, empathy becomes more than just a cognitive exercise or a way to gain insight into another person’s experience. It becomes an active, embodied practice that involves being fully present with another person and allowing oneself to be affected by their emotions. This deeper level of empathy requires vulnerability and openness, making it a profound and transformative experience (Rogers, 1975).

Reimagining empathy in this way shifts it from a mental exercise to an embodied practice. This involves not just understanding someone else’s feelings but opening oneself up to experiencing and resonating with those emotions. This approach can lead to greater compassion and stronger interpersonal connections, fostering deeper and more meaningful relationships (Singer & Klimecki, 2014).

Incorporating insights from Gestalt therapy, empathy can also be understood as a relational process where individuals engage in authentic contact with each other. Gestalt therapy emphasizes the here-and-now experience and the awareness of the present moment, which aligns with the concept of being fully present with another person (Perls, Hefferline, & Goodman, 1951). In this therapeutic approach, empathy involves a holistic engagement where one’s awareness includes both self and other, facilitating a deeper understanding and connection (Yontef, 1993).

By being fully present and emotionally attuned, we allow empathy to transform our interactions. This practice of “taking in the other” encourages a deeper, more compassionate engagement, which can enhance mutual understanding and strengthen the bonds between individuals (Decety & Lamm, 2006). Such a profound level of empathy can create environments of trust and emotional safety, paving the way for more supportive and collaborative relationships.

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2. Batson, C. D. (2009). These things called empathy: Eight related but distinct phenomena. In *The social neuroscience of empathy* (pp. 3-15). MIT Press.
3. Rogers, C. R. (1975). Empathic: An unappreciated way of being. *The Counseling Psychologist, 5*(2), 2-10.
4. Singer, T., & Klimecki, O. M. (2014). Empathy and compassion. *Current Biology, 24*(18), R875-R878.
5. Perls, F. S., Hefferline, R. F., & Goodman, P. (1951). *Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality*. Julian Press.
6. Yontef, G. M. (1993). Awareness, dialogue and process: Essays on Gestalt therapy. *The Gestalt Journal Press*.
7. Decety, J., & Lamm, C. (2006). Human empathy through the lens of social neuroscience. *The Scientific World Journal, 6*, 1146-1163.