Three Forms of Empathy


Having a greater understanding of empathy can be useful, as this trait is so fundamental to our humanity. It fosters a connection with others and helps heal wounds. Without it, many would experience an untold sense of suffering.

Early in the recovery process, it is likely that the addicted individual will need to receive empathy from others. This would include family and friends, clinical support, and peers.

Once someone has made strides in their recovery process, they are often called upon to empathize with others. This article will describe three forms of empathy, as initially described by psychologist Daniel Goleman.


Being able to visualize the experience of another is what we call ‘cognitive empathy.’ This requires to have abstract reasoning skills, as the empath may or may not have actually experienced similar life events.

Some people are very good at delivering cognitive empathy. They are able to work with someone’s story and play that experience in their own head. This shared experience allows for good communication within a relationship.


When you notice that a friend is experiencing something painful, you feel the need to reach out and help in some way. We call this ‘social empathy’ in that it requires the presence of a relationship or attachment.

Social empathy both reminds us of our attachments to others and simultaneously builds greater attachment. Some people are very adept at it and enjoy reaching out to loved ones to provide support.


Being able to feel the immediate pain of another is called ‘compassion.’ This form of empathy would also be synonymous with ‘sympathy.’

Compassion doesn’t necessarily require a personal connection to be felt. This is especially true with healthcare providers who can deliver compassion to patients who are struggling. In some ways, compassion represents a core humanistic trait towards another’s suffering.

Compassion also can become too extensive for a healthcare provider, leading to burnout. We call this phenomenon ‘compassion fatigue’ as it describes someone becoming too tired of the heavy burden of others’ suffering. Compassion fatigue can present as detachment, irritability, or bouts of depression for the individual.

Final Thoughts

Overall, the experience of empathy is fundamentally human, as we are social creatures. It can be useful to reflect on how you hold and work with empathy within your own life. Having awareness of styles of empathy can help us build insight for ourselves, bolster our relationship attachments, and take appropriate care of ourselves to avoid burnout and fatigue.

Read more CeDAR Education Articles about Psychotherapy