Einfühlung and Empathy: What do they mean?

Previously, we looked at the first of my six aspects of empathy, Emotion Contagion. We also talked about the importance of art for people whose Emotion Contagion skills are very strong (hyper-empathic people), and also for people whose skills are currently less developed. The good news is that the six essential aspects of empathy are changeable, malleable, and manageable throughout your life span; therefore, you can make changes to your empathic skills — either to increase them, or to calm them down.

This week, I want to look more closely at artistic expression and at the way that the word empathy came into the English language. In this excerpt from my upcoming book, The Art of Empathy (October 2013, Sounds True), we’ll look at the surprisingly recent history of the empathy and its roots in arts and aesthetics (the appreciation of art, beauty pleasure, and taste). Understanding the artistic and aesthetic undercurrents of empathy gives us a new way to approach empathy, and a new way to work with empathy in ourselves and others.

A short history of the meaning of empathy

Our current Western idea of empathy arises from two places. In English, the word empathy comes from the Greek root pathos, which means emotion, feeling, suffering, or pity (it also comes from a German word, and we’ll explore that below). The English words empathy and sympathy are used interchangeably to refer to the sharing of (or knowledge of) emotions, while apathy relates to lack of emotions, and antipathy relates to antagonistic emotions.

Some sources make a distinction between empathy (the ability to share an emotion viscerally) and sympathy (the ability to understand the emotions of others without actually feeling them concurrently), but this distinction isn’t concrete or stable. In some dictionaries, the definitions of empathy and sympathy are the exact opposite of the ones I just gave you, so from this point forward, I’ll be folding the contested word sympathy into our larger definition of empathy.

In the research, these two seemingly separate categories of empathizing have now been renamed as affective (viscerally feeling) empathy and cognitive (objectively understanding) empathy–and while these new terms address the sympathy/empathy confusion very nicely, they create a distinction that is a bit troubling (I wrote about that trouble here).

Photo by Jennifer Brown
Photo by Jennifer Brown

Einfühlung Defined

The second root of our current concept of empathy comes from the German word Einfühlung (pronounced eín-fhoo-loong), which means “in-feeling” or “feeling into” – and first appeared (in print) in German philosopher Robert Vischer’s 1873 Ph.D. dissertation on aesthetics1. Vischer used the word to explore the human capacity to enter into a piece of art or literature and feel the emotions that the artist had worked to represent – or to imbue a piece of art (or any object) with relevant emotions.

Einfühlung adds a wonderful dimension to empathy (actually, the English word empathy was coined in 19092 as a translation of Einfühlung), because it helps us view empathy not only as our interactional capacity to share emotions with others, but also as our ability to engage emotively with the world around us – and with the nuances and intentions underlying art, music, literature, and symbolism. With the support of the concept of Einfühlung, we can easily see that men (who are so often branded as unempathic) – great artists, writers, musicians, thinkers, and lovers of aesthetics – are absolutely equal to women in their capacity to engage deeply and empathically with the world.

In this book, you may notice that when I explore the act of empathizing, I don’t refer specifically to other people. Instead, I refer to others, because empathizing is not limited to human beings. The concept of Einfühlung really helps us encompass this larger aspects of the empathic experience, and it helps us include animals, art, music, literature, ideas, and symbols in the category of things we can empathize with. The concept of Einfühlung also helps us clearly identify people on the Autism Spectrum as empaths who, in some cases, focus their intense sensitivities, empathy, and interactional capacities on things other than human beings3.

There’s a beautiful documentary from 2010 called Loving Lampposts that filmmaker Todd Drezner made about his autistic son, Sam (you can watch it online here). In it, you can use your own Einfühlung capacity to watch Sam interact adoringly and completely with his beloved lampposts – he communicates with them wordlessly, interacts with them, and has full-bodied, aesthetic Einfühlung with those lampposts right in front of your eyes – and it’s clear that the lampposts soothe and calm and ground Sam. Empathy is an interactional and emotional skill, but it is not and never has been restricted to human relationships.

Photo from The Prince’s Foundation for Children & the Arts
Photo from The Prince’s Foundation for Children & the Arts

The concept of Einfühlung really resonates with my experience (does this mean I’m having Einfühlung about Einfühlung?), because the people I know who are most empathic are very deeply engaged with the nonhuman world. Nature, animals, art, music, dance, drama, literature, ideas, concepts, symbolism, science, mathematics, movement, philosophy, spirituality (or all of these) resonate very profoundly for my fellow empaths – and their empathic abilities help them develop not just talent in their chosen interest areas, but intensive relationships with their interests.

For an empath, playing music (for instance) is not just a physical act of hitting the right notes in the right order with the right intonation; rather, the musical experience is a fully embodied, fully emotive interaction between the empath and the art form.

~~end excerpt from The Art of Empathy, © Karla McLaren, 2013~~

When I work with empaths (or with people who are having trouble with empathy), I always ask about their art form, because art is a specific tool to help people access emotions, express emotions, and work with their empathic Einfühlung capacities in intentional and healing ways.

For many of us, the meaning of empathy is rather problematic. It’s something we learned to do, yet were never actually taught, so we don’t know the steps. We don’t know how we pick up emotions from others, or why, or how we empathize, or over-empathize, or under-empathize, because we don’t have a language for what we’re doing, or the emotional skills we need to fully understand what’s occurring.

In this Year of Empathy, we’ll develop that empathic language together, but the most important tool you have already exists inside you — it’s your natural capacity for artistic, aesthetic, and empathic awareness.

As you go through your day, be aware of how often you utilize your innate Einfühlung capacity to feel into art, nature, ideas, situations, and the lives of other people. This ability you have— this ability to empathize with every aspect of your surroundings — is an absolutely commonplace skill, but until you know what to look for, you may not even realize you’re doing it!

Fellow empaths, how do you use your Einfühlung capacities right now?

Next week: Why Empathic Accuracy doesn’t guarantee effective empathizing (and what does!)

1 Visher, Robert, et al. 1993 (reprint and translation from the original German). On the Optical Sense of Form: A Contribution to Aesthetics, in Empathy, Form, and Space: Problems in German Aesthetics, 1873-1893 (Texts and Documents Series). pp. 89-123. Santa Monica, CA: Getty Center for the History of Art.
2 American psychologist Robert Titchener is said to have coined the word empathy in 1909 (source). Also see Rae Grenier, “1909: The Introduction of the Word “Empathy” into English”

3 See my two-part essay Empaths on the Autism Spectrum

12 Responses

  1. Melissa
    | Reply

    Each time I read something written by you, I am able to get a clear glimpse of how this empathy “stuff” is really a great way to experience this planet! I have an awe-tistic friend that is my friend, because he gets that I get him. We have wonderful moments of staring at the wind chimes for hours. Can’t wait to get the book! Thank you Karla!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thank you Melissa! Thanks for bringing more empathy into the world, yeeha!

  2. Deirdra
    | Reply

    I just started reading your book The Language Of Emotions in conjunction with Rose Rosetree’s book on developing Empath Skills.
    This article opened up something else for me. I realize that the creative things that I either do myself or go experience are an example of Einfuhlung. So interesting. I immerse myself in all of it and I get so much emotional fulfillment from looking at art or creating it. Walking through gardens or gardening. Going to a hair show or creating amazing cuts and colors myself. It is sometimes awkward how much I get out of those experiences – because I really feel what was put into the creation of whatever I am looking at or in my case, when I am creating, I am so deep in it that I’m not aware of outside influences – like a good love affair. Until I read this article I did not put it together – plus I am just learning how to work with my empathic nature.
    Thanks for being out there and helping put all the pieces together .

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Welcome, empath! Isn’t it funny how we’ve all learned to hide our empathic understanding from ourselves? Or maybe, how we’ve been taught to? It’s also interesting to look at men who might consider themselves unemotional, and to observe where their Einfühlung abilities are — maybe in science, math, sports, building, art — something. The concept of Einfühlung really helped me write my new book, because it opened up the concept of empathy so beautifully. Danke, Einfühlung!

  3. Mariana
    | Reply

    Thank you Karla for your ‘take’ on empathy that resonates with my soul and life – the concept of Einfühlung also resonates with my experience in life – to nature, art, my surroundings, ideas, etc. I have been loving listening to your cd set from Sounds True and though I thought I knew a lot about empathy as a therapist, I have learned so much more from your teachings and experience! I burned a Contract last night and that was revealing for me. Thank you!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Mariana! Thanks so much for the work you’re doing, and welcome!

  4. Pamela Lauren
    | Reply

    In reading this, I now know why myself as well as both my children are all deeply involved in the arts.
    I took the test as you suggested and scored 115 which did not surprise me at all. I have always been overwhelmed by people’s emotions. But reading about the lean towards the arts explains why it has always been a self soothing technique for me.
    My oldest daughter is a fabulous artist who is completely self taught but has huge difficulty with emotions just like her mom. My youngest child is very gifted in many forms of music. She is a teen and I am noticing her tendency for being overwhelmed by people’s emotions too. Is this hypersensitivity common in families?

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Pamela, yes! Emotional styles are both genetic and learned socially, and Dr. Richard Davidson suggests that they can be changed throughout the lifespan if people are uncomfortable. I think you’ll like his book The Emotional Life of Your Brain.

      You can take his test to discover your emotional style on his Facebook page, here.

      You may also like this post about The Magical Healing Powers of Art for hyper-empaths. You’re not alone, and you’re not stuck with a form of emotional style that isn’t comfortable!

  5. hmh
    | Reply

    Thank u for the article… now that your link no longer works for loving lampposts would you have another source to watch this movie without paying for it on Vimeo ? Thank you!

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Thanks for letting me know about the broken link (I updated it). The free period is over, and now people can stream it for $4.99, here: https://www.lovinglamppostsmovie.com/

  6. Renee
    | Reply

    Einfühlung is my primary reason for living. I get it from learning new things, reading fiction, watching a play, but mostly by watching film masterpieces.

    The VVitch, Get Out, Mother!, Parasite, the series Watchmen.

    The other day I was grieving the fact that I’d never be a talented artist. Because I always wanted so much to give to the world that feeling of Einfühlung that life has graciously given me.

    Then I thought about it.

    I might not be able to create great art but I can still sure as hell appreciate it. Just having that is something to be grateful for.

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Thanks Renee – artists everywhere salute you!

      My husband Tino gave me a blessing one time as he saw me struggling with an edit: May you be read with the intensity and dedication with which you write.

      What a marvelous thing it is when that happens!

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