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What is Accurate Empathy and Why is it Important?

Updated: Mar 22

As a therapist, one of the most rewarding aspects of my work is the feeling of genuine connection with the individuals sitting in front of me in moments where they let me know that they feel fully seen or heard by me. They tell me something along the lines of: “Yes! That’s 100% how it feels,” or “I didn’t know how to put into words what I was feeling but that’s exactly it.” Because that tells me I am on the right track to providing accurate empathy, a key ingredient for a positive therapy outcome. Let me explain.


If you’re seeking therapy, chances are you are feeling stuck. Stuck in a maladaptive way of thinking, self-sabotaging pattern of behavior, or dysfunctional relationship dynamic. But the thing is - you probably have a whole life story behind why you have come to think that way, behave that way, and relate to others that way. Life has been such that it made sense for you at the time those habits were formed to be that way. So even if you have an inkling now that you can’t continue the way you’ve been, it’s hard to change, because you are so entrenched in feeling/thinking/relating that way. 


To untangle all that - and to separate the habits that are still serving you from those that no longer do - you may feel like you need a qualified, objective third party, which in many cases is a therapist. The therapist’s role is to create a safe environment conducive to an honest, unfiltered self-exploration, so that you can have a clearer understanding of yourself and work towards growth. But a safe environment needs to be cultivated. The therapist has to first try to understand what it feels like to be you, before they can help you.


And this is where accurate empathy comes in. A key concept in the Rogerian tradition of person-centered therapy, accurate empathy isn’t sympathy (feeling sadness or pity for someone), it isn’t identification (seeing yourself in someone else’s plight), and it isn’t even plain empathy (the capacity to feel someone else’s feelings) - it goes one step further. Accurate empathy is a more precise and refined understanding of what someone is going through and why. It’s understanding the nuances of your anger, your despair, your annoyance, your delight. Accurate empathy is not just: “That must feel bad.” It’s: “That must feel infuriating because xyz happened the last time this happened and you promised yourself that you would do such and such and you couldn’t this time,” for example. Accurate empathy is understanding the thought process behind why someone feels the way they do. It’s also the therapist being fully attuned, moment to moment, to what the individual in front of them is experiencing and feeling. That understanding and attunement are what allow for the feeling of being fully seen and heard by a therapist. And for most of us, it’s only when we feel seen and heard that we feel safe enough to reveal our deepest vulnerabilities and embark on this honest self-exploration. 


Accurate empathy is why I spend a great deal of time trying to listen to the details of your life. I want to be able to see, feel, and sense the world the way you do - or to the extent possible by another human being. I want to learn about the environment you grew up in. I want to learn about the key characters in your life. I want to understand your innate temperament versus the traits you have picked up over the years in response to the circumstances you encountered. And I want to try to understand how all these elements have interacted with one another to create the person that you are today. The more I know about these details, the more I am able to walk in your shoes and see the world through your eyes. Only then can I begin to see how a third party helper like me can be of most help to you. Only then do I feel I have the right to perhaps gently challenge you, or point out the gaps in your logic or assumptions causing you unnecessary distress, and only then does it make sense for me to bring in my own professional suggestions as to what we should work on together.


In that process of accurate empathy, there is also another important therapeutic element: the witnessing and honoring of the key life experiences that have shaped you. The grief of losing a loved one, the pain of seeing your parents divorce, the betrayal by someone you trusted, or the trauma of experiencing abuse, for example - these experiences have undoubtedly left a mark on you, and there is healing in having them witnessed and honored. In many ways, we can think of therapy as the “unburdening” of the emotional burden that you have been carrying, so we can take an honest look at the content and see what we want to keep and what to discard. And accurate empathy is indispensable for this.

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