A very similar question was asked here, but provided phrases and was worded a bit awkwardly.

I am more inquiring as to whether there is a single world for when person A feels empathy for person B which does not align with how person B actually feels. Thus, falsely assuming similarity between their feelings.

e.g. Before speaking to Tim about the death of Tim's father, John was sad because he empathized with Tim. However, Tim was actually relieved and happy about his father's death. Tim's father was an abusive alcoholic, and constantly assaulted and emotionally tortured his entire family for 30 years. John's (word) made for an awkward conversation.

edit: Misunderstanding is a great word for this, but is incredibly general without enough context. So, I guess I'm also looking for a word that is synonymous with misunderstanding, but in the specific context of empathy.

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    Misapprehended? Misjudged? What words have you found and why didn't they work?
    – NVZ
    Mar 19, 2016 at 18:02
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    @NVZ To be fair, OP did put the effort in to search for prior questions, and then pointed out a relevant one in his question. That's more than most people do. Also, it's hard to Google for words which capture large concepts like this, one of the reasons SWRs are so popular here (in other words: it's easy to look up someone's number in a phonebook if you know their name, but almost impossible to look someone's name up in a phonebook if you know their number. The former is O(log(N)), the latter is O(N), and for a contemporary dictionary of English, N is on the order of 1,000,000).
    – Dan Bron
    Mar 19, 2016 at 18:06
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    @TheCrzyMan The article says hope can be projected as well, so presumably something in between should be fair game also. Hmm, misunderstanding seems to fit - are you looking for more?
    – Lawrence
    Mar 19, 2016 at 18:18
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    Going with the "mis <something> empathy" theme: misplaced empathy. Just pretend the space is a letter, and it's even one word ;)
    – Dan Bron
    Mar 19, 2016 at 18:18
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    @DanBron I like your suggestion misplaced empathy. I found this reddit where people share their experience on the matter. I just hope OP finds this useful.
    – NVZ
    Mar 19, 2016 at 20:45

7 Answers 7


My first thought was transference, but that's not quite right. I can see my self describing an individual as "transferring that feeling to the other person", but the actual word transference carries a lot of psychobabble baggage.

But looking that up did lead to an actual Psych term that could be applied for what you describe - Parataxic distortion. Gee... that's a real conversation killer.

But I do like the word distortion to match what you're describing; such as "distorted empathy", "empathetic distortion", or "empathy distortion.

The phrase "misplaced empathy" in the comments is nice, but it seems to imply "empathy placed on the wrong target". The sort of issue your describing might actually happen when there is an amount of genuine empathy existing between the two individuals in lots of other ways, but this one particular item is distorted.


In literature, the phrase pathetic fallacy is used for the act of attributing human feelings to inanimate objects, and I've always felt we needed a phrase like that for attributing our own feelings to others. The phrase itself - due to Ruskin - is as good as any other I can think of.
So it's not one word, but then the hope that we can always find one word for any two concepts assorted more or less at random means that, for English at least, we'll need about 60 000 000 000 words, and we don't live long enough for that.


Hm, in thinking of how I'd approach it, I'd likely frame a sentence around "Misidentification"/"Misidentifying" [with another thing].

I couldn't imagine an appraising of another's identity that wouldn't involve some reflexive empathic comparisons...hmm..


Though it is not specific only to the context of empathy, "misattribution" might be a better single-word fit here than simply "misunderstanding."

M-W (definition 2):

attribute (v)

1 : to explain as the cause of - "We attribute their success to hard work."

2 : to think of as likely to be a quality of a person or thing - "Some people attribute stubbornness to mules."

Using "misattribution," your sentence could be slightly rephrased as follows:

"John's misattribution of Tim's reaction to remorse made for an awkward conversation." [Bold for necessary explanation - you misattribute things to someone or something.]


Therapists seem to use the terms empathic failure, empathic lapse, or empathic miss in similar situations.

"Empathic failure" is the term used in the psychotherapeutic literature to describe an interaction in which the therapist misunderstands the patient.Suzanne Bender & Edward Messner, Becoming a Therapist: What Do I Say, and Why?

This definition is from a section entitled "What is an Empathic Lapse?"; apparently these authors prefer the term "empathic lapse" as less harsh, but unfortunately the page with that explanation is omitted in Google Books.

Similarly, in a blog post entitled "Psychotherapy: Empathic Failures, Great and Small" another therapist says

At times, we may presuppose a client is feeling one thing and not be attuned enough to them to realize that they feel something else. . . . I am . . . talking about . . . the failure to connect with our clients in [a] way that is meaningful. . . . Many times these types of failures occur when we, as therapists, fail to keep our own emotions and relational “baggage” out of the therapy with another person. . . . Each empathic miss, large or small, becomes an opportunity to learn.

Lapse, by itself, seems like it would work in context; the OED online defines it as

A ‘slip’ of the memory, the tongue, the pen, or †the understanding; a slight error, a mistake

and the "slip of understanding" definition seems apropos.

A less technical term, which still carries a slight whiff of psychology, is disconnect:

a lack of connection; a failure of two things to relate —Cambridge Dictionary

"Disconnect" comes up in literature on empathy, though not always with the particular meaning you ascribe. I think it would work to describe the relationship between Tim's feelings and John's feelings, though perhaps not exactly John's error.


Before speaking to Tim about the death of Tim's father, John was sad because he empathized with Tim. However, Tim was actually relieved and happy about his father's death. Tim's father was an abusive alcoholic, and constantly assaulted and emotionally tortured his entire family for 30 years. John's empathic failure/lapse/miss made for an awkward conversation.


. . . . This disconnect made for an awkward conversation.


Fallacious: based on a mistaken belief... So maybe fallaciousness? Or - Fallacious attempt. Perhaps Myopia: meaning nearsightedness, or lack of imagination, foresight, or intellectual insight. And as a 2-word suggestion, maybe use the phrase Emotional Myopia. Last suggestion would be the simple word Sin, which in one of its original meanings meant "to miss the mark".


The psychological term is projection.


Practical examples: Projection of hope: Also, in a more positive light, a patient may sometimes project his or her feelings of hope onto the therapist.

While projection as a psychological defense mechanism commonly refers to the transference of negative emotions from oneself to others, it frequently also involves the transference of positive feelings. Either way, it leads to misunderstandings.

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