I talk about empathy on here quite a bit (there’s a whole category for it), as it’s a skill I’m working to improve in my own life. The more I read and learn about it, the more my skill of empathy slowly improves.
Until now, though, I’ve largely thought of empathy as a personal thing — trying to understand the thoughts and feelings of a particular person. That’s not wrong, but that’s not the whole story.
In her book “Social Empathy“, author Elizabeth Segal lays out two different kinds of empathy:
Most people find it easy to be empathetic on an individual level, but social empathy takes some work. It means considering the wider context of other people’s lives and the social and historical circumstances that shaped the present. But once we understand the blocks to empathy, we can take steps to overcome them and build a better society using social empathy.
It feels to me like both of those fall under the idea of “interpersonal empathy”, as things like “social and historical circumstances” still are what makes the person, but by taking a step back you can see things through a slightly better perspective.
Another way to look at it is that interpersonal empathy helps you understand what a person is feeling, and social empathy helps you understand why they feel that way. Elizabeth’s book digs much deeper into this, and I encourage you to check it out.