Is it empathy or projection?

Ten Ways to Know the Difference

Can you read the emotions of others, or are you simply projecting your own emotions? The answer isn’t simple, but there are ways to tell the difference, and ways to develop your empathic abilities and accuracy.

Ten possibilities to explore

Sometimes, people will tell you that an emotion you sensed isn’t there, that you’re imagining it, or that they aren’t feeling it.

They may be right. Empathy is more of an art than it is a science, and there are many factors that can lead you to being more or less accurate about the emotions of others.

First, are you accurate about your own emotions? Do you always know how you feel, and why? If not, you probably won’t be accurate about other people’s emotions either. Empathy is first and foremost an emotional skill, so your own emotional awareness is crucial to your ability to identify emotions in others.

If your emotional awareness tends to be high, you may be fairly accurate at deciphering the emotions of others, but even then, people may disagree with what you sense. There are many factors that can get in the way of your empathic skills.

This list is from my book, The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill (Sounds True, 2013):

  • You could be right, but perhaps you phrased things in such a way that the person feels unmasked and unsafe for reasons that may have nothing to do with you.
  • You could be projecting your own emotional state onto the person, who doesn’t feel what you’re feeling right now.
  • You could be projecting, yet it’s still true that the other person feels the same emotion you feel right now.
  • You could feel your own intensity level of the emotion and mistakenly assume that the other person feels it in the way you do (with all of your baggage).
  • You could be recalling emotional behaviors from your family or your childhood — and you could be projecting those emotions into this situation.
  • The person could honestly be unaware that he or she is feeling the emotion.
  • The person could be deeply ashamed of and dissociated from the emotion.
  • The person could view emotions as signs of weakness or lack of control — and misidentify them or ignore them intentionally.
  • The person could be trying to confuse you.
  • The person could be lying.

In situations 1 through 5, your own difficulties with communication or emotional skills are getting in the way of clear empathizing. All of the practices in The Art of Empathy will help you address these difficulties. Empathy is a skill, and you can increase your empathic skills at any stage of your life.

One of the most important first steps is very simple: increase your emotional vocabulary. Research by Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett and her colleagues has suggested that — all by itself — a larger emotional vocabulary can help you develop better emotional awareness and stronger emotional regulation skills.

Many years ago, I developed an Emotional Vocabulary list, which you can download for free. It can help you become more precise and accurate about your own emotions, which will help you develop better awareness of the emotions of others (and better emotion regulation). Simple!

But in situations 6 through 10, the other person’s (lack of) skills and emotional awareness are where the problems lie.

Emotional and empathic skills are vital for healthy relationships, but some people simply can’t tolerate being emotionally close or vulnerable with you. This is okay, as long as you have friends and family members who can provide you with the depth and connection you need to develop your emotional and empathic awareness.

For some people, being close, interactive, or vulnerable can feel truly awful. Therefore, the most empathic thing you can do is to stop trying to be empathic. When someone sends you clear signals that your empathy isn’t appreciated, then good empathy requires that you back away.

Our emotional training tends to be very poor, and many people simply can’t face their emotions. That’s okay.

If these people want to move forward with you, you can let them know that you’re working to develop your empathy. You can use the empathically clumsy situations between you as examples that will help you explore and deepen your relationship.

However, if these people state that they’re not interested in developing an empathic connection with you, you’ll have important information about who they are, what’s important to them, and how you’ll approach them in the future.

Some people will not want to get into sync with you, and that’s okay, as long as it’s clearly stated and clearly understood. A vital part of developing healthy empathy is building your emotional awareness and your ability to regulate your emotions. But an equally vital part of developing healthy empathy is understanding when empathy is — and is not — appropriate.

That’s the art of empathy.

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