Embodying Empathy

The funny thing about empathy is that everyone thinks they have it, and yet so few people show it.

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. But it’s not enough to understand, we have to act. Understanding happens in the mind. Action happens in the body.

To care is to feel, to recognize the importance; it’s an internal emotional state. But to take care is an external performance; it is a behavior. Only when it is observable and experienced by others does it have impact.

Feeling empathy is necessary, but it is not sufficient. It must be perceptible. We must express it, perform it. To embody empathy is to quite literally give our body to it. To allow it to fill us completely.

When we embody something, it becomes tangible and we become a symbol of it. It is no longer something to turn on or off, something to choose to pay attention to inside of us. It is us.

Embodying empathy is the act of giving ourselves to others. In every exchange, every meeting, every decision, being constantly filled with the awareness of others’ needs. They do not diminish our own, but they slowly integrate with our own. We can then act on the other’s behalf as a true proxy.

That is the job of a designer: to be a proxy for the intended audience. Just as the job of a manager is to be a proxy for his staff. And the job of a leader is to be a proxy for her community.

It’s not enough to feel the feelings of another; we have to represent them.

So are you just experiencing empathy, or are others experiencing the effects of it?

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  1. Legalcomplex says

    I stumbleupon your blog and I’ve read a couple of your posts. Needless to say they are excellent but one in particular struck me, War Stories. My question is one I have been struggling with for 3 years: Personas and Empathy. I belief personas increase apathy not empathy. Am I wrong?


  1. […] There’s “cognitive empathy” (being able to share another person’s perspective) and there’s “emotional empathy” (taking on the emotional state of another). Both of these types of empathy come naturally to me. But there’s a third kind of empathy that I have to be conscious of in order to achieve: compassionate empathy, or “empathic concern.” Not only to share in another person’s emotions, but also to see them in a positive light and to want to help. It is less fleeting; it presumes action. It is what I call embodying empathy. […]

  2. […] Embodying Empathy by Whitney Hess made me want to share my personal experience – not just as someone who cares […]

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