Empathy vs Apathy

Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Did you know that empathy is considered a healthy behavior, while apathy can be a sign of something wrong? In this lesson, we will learn about empathy, apathy, and how the two are different.

Definition

Empathy refers to the capacity to recognize, understand, and experience the thoughts and feelings of another person. Apathy refers to a lack of concern or emotion. Let's look at an example to get a deeper understanding of what these terms mean.

Example

Bill is in his dorm room when he gets a call from his mother informing Bill that his father has just died of a heart attack. Bill is visibly upset and tells his roommates George and Paul about his father's death. Bill explains how his father was his best friend and showed no signs of being sick. After listening to Bill talk, George tells Bill about how George's father died a few years ago in a car accident, and how George still misses him every day. Bill and George bond over their shared grief, and both begin to shed tears. Meanwhile, Paul just stands there looking at his roommates for a few seconds. Then Paul walks away and turns on the television to watch cartoons. In this example, George showed empathy while Paul showed apathy.

What is Empathy?

Have you ever witnessed a friend go through a painful situation and felt your friend's emotions? If so, you were feeling empathy. Empathy is the ability to identify and understand what someone else is going through. When you experience empathy, you can experience another person's emotions and see things from another person's perspective. It is almost as if you are sharing the emotional experience together. Since George had previously lost his father unexpectedly, he was able to understand what Bill was feeling. George also shared Bill's grief over the loss of his father.

Empathy is beneficial because it helps build meaningful bonds between people, as in the case with Bill and George. Empathy can also help you understand why a person may feel or behave a certain way, help you feel like there is someone else who understands what you are going through and decrease feelings of isolation, and can help you heal from a bad situation. It is important to note that we can feel empathy in happy and sad situations. For example, a mother can empathize with her daughter's joy after the birth of her daughter's first child.

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