Let's Talk About Empathy - What Is It & Why Is It Important?

There’s a lot of talk about being an empath, but what is empathy and why is it important?

Both the Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries define empathy as:

“the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what is would be like in that person’s situation.”

Empathy is an important element of being human. Although it’s a trait also noticed in other animals including apes. Empathy is an essential part of cooperation as well as for caring for and bonding with children. In evolutionary terms, the survival of our species depends on both of these. 

Research has suggested that empathy is associated with certain brain activity, and scientists speculate that specialist cells (mirror neurons) cause our bodies to emulate the emotions that we perceive in others. This means we can start to understand others not by thinking, but by feeling. So, if you’re being told you’re being ‘over-sensitive’, it’s not just ‘in your head’. It’s actually more likely to be in your brain!

It is said that empathy is a building block of morality; that we wouldn’t be able to live in a social group without being able to put ourselves in the shoes of others. It allows us to

  • see things from different perspectives,
  • understand the needs and intentions of others
  • form supportive and intimate relationships. 

Psychological research studies on empathy have shown that:

  • it increases the likelihood that you will help another person, even if it puts you out.
  • When group norms encourage it people are more likely to be empathic (and more altruistic). It’s basically contagious.
  • it reduces racism and prejudice and encourages the fight against inequality. (Conversely, inequality can reduce empathy which is, perhaps, no surprise!)
  • it deepens intimacy and increases levels of satisfaction in intimate relationships.
  • it reduces bullying, and increases kindness and inclusivity in children’s behaviours.
  • Improved empathy in teachers reduces the numbers of suspensions of their students.
  • it promotes heroic acts.
  • it can help improve positive policing in times of crisis. 
  • Being shown empathy in a hospital setting can speed up patients’ recovery time and reduce the length of hospital stays.

Did Your Know, There Are Different Types Of Empathy?

Psychology researchers specialising in the study of emotions generally differentiate between two types of empathy: Affective and Cognitive.

Affective Empathy is what we feel in response to others’ emotions. It could be that we mirror their actual emotions; feeling the fear, sadness, excitement or joy that they feel. It could also be a more generic response such as feeling stressed or general contentment on their behalf.

Cognitive Empathy is the ability to identify and understand another person’s emotions and is often called ‘perspective taking’. We are able to consider how it must feel for them to be in their situation.

Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman identify a third form; compassionate empathy, where we not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them, but are spontaneously moved to help them out. 

From the reading I’ve done it seems that this third type is an outcome of a healthy balance of the other two, as opposed to an individual type of empathy. 

A lack or excess of affective and/or cognitive empathy all have their pitfalls.

A grown up, emotionally intelligent, self-aware response is a healthy balance of each in equal measure. This results in this compassionate empathy. It enables us to act to help the other person without being overcome with feeling or jumping straight into a problem solving process.

Let’s look at this in a bit more detail: A lack of empathy

A lack of cognitive empathy can cause us to come across as distant or detached. We might be able to see the bigger picture around a situation but our loved ones won’t feel that we understand their predicaments. They might feel unheard, or unseen by us as a result. We need to have a sense of how they might be feeling in those moments so that we can meet them where they are and really be there for them. It’s said that individuals on the autistic spectrum struggle with cognitive empathy.

A lack of affective empathy might mean that, even if we have an understanding of how our friend might feel, we are unlikely to take action to help them out. Some studies show that bullies (and it is suggested, those higher on the psychopathy spectrum) lack affective empathy but score well on cognitive empathy. They therefore, might understand that they are hurting you, but lack the necessary emotional empathy which would cause them to stop. It’s suggested that when we both understand and feel the emotions of others, we are more likely to take compassionate action to help them, even at our own expense.

Can We Have Too Much Empathy?

YES!

If we are overly empathic:

  • we can feel consumed by the emotions, stress, or fear of others.
  • this can be exhausting; depleting us cognitively, physically, energetically and spiritually. 
  • It becomes impossible to differentiate our own feelings from that of others.
  • Our own needs and wants become lost.
  • When we are overwhelmed with empathy we reduce our inner resources for making decisions, focusing our attention, giving our best to our loved ones and to our own life. (Some of you might recognise these ‘symptoms’ from being overwhelmed by the feelings, situation and ambient anxiety of lockdown during the C-19 pandemic). 
  • we are not good at setting or maintaining boundaries.
  • we can experience general anxiety, or low level depression as we dwell on situations we are powerless to control.

Often referred to as ‘being an empath’, being overly empathic can leave people vulnerable to the more manipulative and sinister side of life. I have seen highly sensitive individuals (in the worst case scenarios) enticed by scams, taken-in by liars, stuck in abusive relationships and realising they’ve been the victim of gaslighting.

(If you are wondering if you’re an empath, take a look at this article.)

Why?

One reason is, it seems, too much empathy can often knock out our rational functions as we become overwhelmed by ‘their’ stories, to the detriment of perspective and reality checking.

There is Good News Though…

It is entirely possible to work on developing more empathy, especially of the cognitive variety. 

It is also entirely possible to reduce our natural empathic tendencies. More of this in an upcoming article. 

In the meantime, if you’re struggling with feelings of empathic or emotional overwhelm, you can access my free download ‘The Empath’s Action Plan To Manage Overwhelm’ here.

Helen Leathers

Transformational Women's Coach, Trainer, Speaker & Author

Combining a spiritual outlook, a pragmatic approach, and a sense of humour I want to help you remember who YOU are and reveal YOUR path so you can step on to it empowered, energised, inspired and guided.

What are your thoughts or questions? Let me know below

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