Meaning of Life

The Importance of Empathy

Christine Bruun
Christine Bruun
Professor, Department of Psychology at Rockford College, Rockford, IL

The value of empathy is widely recognized. Both anecdotal sources and empirical research provide evidence for its positive effects. The renowned Viennese psychiatrist, Alfred Adler, noted that to have empathy is “to see with the eyes of another, to hear with the ears of another, to feel with the heart of another.” This description is markedly different from “sympathy,” in which there is distance between the observer and the experiencer. Empathy involves the person completely: at a thinking, feeling, and physiological level. Cognitively, the empathizer takes the other’s perspective; emotionally, there is identification at a feeling level; and physiologically, the empathizer may even experience bodily sensations similar to the other person. Clearly it is a process that involves the person holistically.

Some forms of empathy may be built-in from birth, such as infants crying in response to hearing the cries of another infant. Also, there is evidence that empathy may increase through adolescence and later. Perhaps some individuals are more constitutionally predisposed to experience empathy than others. However, whether it is innate, or a matter of development and maturation, or simply temperament and personality, empathy changes the quality of our lives and the lives of those around us.

Yet what happens when empathy is delayed and when it is experienced in retrospect? Often persons do not realize what others have gone through until they have experienced similar events in their own lives. This experience seems to be empathy just as much as identifying with another person in the immediate moment. Yet, just as it is similar to empathy, it is also different, and it reverberates powerfully. My colleague and I at Rockford College are learning about this after-the-fact type of empathy and are calling it “deferred empathy.” We first became attuned to this concept in life review groups that we conducted in the community. Repeatedly, individuals would remark that they now understood many situations that they previously did not. For example, they now knew why their parents behaved as they did, since they had experienced similar situations as parents themselves.

At this point we have surveyed over 200 individuals in three age groups: young adults, middle-aged adults, and older adults, asking them about their experiences with deferred empathy. All these individuals have been able to point to instances in their lives when they revised their opinion of others and became more empathic. However, the new perspective may serve different purposes at various ages. Young adults have tended to give examples that help them adapt to adult roles.

For example, a 21-year old male explained to us that he now understood his parents’ frugality, which had always angered him: “I [now] realize that it is hard to pay bills and still keep enough spending money for myself.” Older adults have been more likely to explain that deferred empathy helps integrate the past and present with meaning.

An 81-year old woman related that earlier she had not been able to understand why her mother had so fiercely resisted giving up her independence. Yet when she herself entered old age she had empathy: “Once you experience the same feelings…you can understand why she felt and acted as she did.” Sometimes the responses have been especially poignant, indicating a significant re-integration in the person’s life.

A 48-year old woman told this story: “In my early twenties, I could often be heard expressing my opinion about women who stay in abusive relationships, with an insensitivity springing from youthful confidence. I could not understand why anyone would choose that lifestyle. At twenty-eight, I was in what I considered to be my prime. I was in a successful job, financially secure, physically attractive and very confident. By the end of that same year, I was in an abusive relationship where I was to remain for one year. There comes a turning point in one of these relationships when a woman realizes that she must break free soon or it will be too late…I ached to think of the unfair judgments I had made about women I had known or even heard about in a similar position…Now, I try never to assume that things are as they appear. I continually try to imagine what someone else may be feeling or thinking so that it might guide my tongue or my actions and possibly explain theirs.”

Deferred empathy may be the bridge to a higher level of personal integration and maturity. It may be a way to find meaning from the past and to put it into usable form in the present. Also, it seems to be closely related to forgiveness. Whatever personal interpretation an individual may give to this experience, it appears to have a life-changing effect.