Imagine you see another person get injured. Maybe they walk into a door and get a black eye, or perhaps they trip and twist their ankle.
How do you feel when you see this happen?
- Do you sense the injured person’s pain and cringe?
- Do you feel sorry for them?
The answer is based on your emotional and cognitive capacity for empathy. Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” If you are an empathetic person, you will respond to someone’s pain in at least one of two ways:
- You understand their pain cognitively.
- You can share in their pain emotionally, entering their perspective as if you were the one having the experience.
Empathy doesn’t just involve pain, rather, it applies to the whole range of human life. However, pain is often used in empathy examples because anyone with a minimal level of empathy knows what it likes to sense someone else’s pain. Empathy is crucial in relationships and life. The ability to see things from another person’s perspective affects your relationships, mental and emotional health, and even your career.
But there’s one more thing to know about empathy: it’s divided into three different types: cognitive, emotional/affective, and compassionate. Let’s dive into the definition of empathy and learn more about what each of these types means.
What’s So Important About Empathizing With Others?
Here’s another definition for empathy:
“Empathy is the visceral experience of another person’s thoughts and feelings from his or her point of view, rather than from one’s own.” (Psychology Today, emphasis added)
The word visceral means “a deep inward feeling.” This definition of empathy indicates that deep inside, you’re connecting with someone else’s lived experience as if it was your own.
Why Does This Matter?
Why is empathy such an important concept? Why does it matter in mental health and why do psychologists emphasize it? Why do we need empathy? What makes it a popular topic in psychology? What’s its impact on mental health and relationships?
You might be surprised to learn that empathy is not a universal experience. Personality disordered individuals, such as people diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, or Narcissistic Personality Disorder, have an empathy deficit.
The ability to understand and care about another person’s perspective is a basic facet of successful relationships. A lack of empathy can, on the mild end, lead to the disruption of relationships, and as it becomes more severe, it can cause sociopathic and/or criminal behavior.
How Do People Develop Different Types of Empathy?
Experts believe that empathy stems from both genetics and socialization (Verywell Mind). While most people are on the whole, more or less empathetic, levels of empathy also vary depending on circumstances. Some well-meaning people who live kind lives can display a startling lack of empathy when it comes to certain situations.
In other words, a lack of empathy doesn’t necessarily stem from a personality disorder; it can also be caused by the way a person is socialized. For example, if an entire culture tends to blame victims, individuals will be more likely to as well. It becomes easier to discard their experience or blame it on them. This is incredibly damaging, but unfortunately quite common.
Empathy is linked to prosocial behavior, from healthy relationships to humanitarian work. It makes the world go round, enabling us to consider others’ needs and experiences, not just our own. According to Verywell Mind, empathy is also linked to positive outcomes in negotiation, collaboration, creativity, feeling safe, emotional connection, and identifying needs.
If you can empathize with others, you’ll have better skills in all of these areas, and if they empathize with you too, this will likely lead to healthy relationships in all spheres of life.
3 Types of Empathy
Emotional empathy is all about connecting with others on a heart or feelings level. It’s the gateway to compassion, which is the third type of empathy. It’s feeling what someone else feels as if you were experiencing it yourself (though not in a literal physical sense – that’s called somatic empathy and it’s not considered one of the three major types).
Think of someone in your life who is high in emotional empathy. Chances are you have a good relationship with them. But maybe you’ve also observed that sometimes this tendency can be taken too far. Maybe they suffer more as a result. There’s a lot of suffering in the world, after all, and if you’re an emotionally empathetic person, it can be very difficult for you to encounter suffering, because to some extent you share in it.One study showed that parents high in empathy had increased inflammation and cortisol levels, consistent with a prolonged stress response. Parents who were able to switch from emotionally empathetic responses to cognitively empathic responses to their children were also able to lower their stress response.
Emotional empathy is the gateway to compassion, as we’ll see in a moment, but it can also be the gateway to compassion fatigue. It’s exhausting to feel other people’s pain, but it’s also a necessary step in doing something to help them. That’s why it’s crucial to learn empathy regulation skills. Christian counseling for personal growth can help you learn to manage your empathetic responses while also caring for yourself.
As you can probably guess, cognitive empathy is the ability to rationally understand someone’s feelings or experiences on an intellectual level. This is the easiest type of empathy to achieve.
For example, someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, a disorder specifically marked by low empathy, can use cognitive empathy to hurt others. Anyone with nefarious intentions, whether personality disordered or not, can use cognitive empathy to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and imagine their experiences and then use that perspective against them. They can see things from your perspective – they just don’t care how you feel. And that’s a dangerous combination.
However, cognitive empathy is a good thing when used correctly. It is an important step in developing compassion, and it can be very helpful in regulating emotional empathy. It allows you to make decisions in others’ best interests, even if you’re exhausted from too much emotional connection with their experience.
And it can also be beneficial in social settings, conflict resolution, and your career – in other words, any situation that requires emotional intelligence. You’ll be able to use logic, reason, persuasion, kindness, etc. more effectively if you can cognitively understand where someone else is coming from and try to see a situation from their point of view.
Finally, let’s talk about compassionate empathy. This type of empathy is also simply known as compassion. It’s empathy plus action. Compassionate empathy is associated with positive health benefits. It involves the desire to help someone, or more commonly, actually taking action to help them.
When someone starts with emotional and cognitive empathy and moves into compassionate empathy, you can see the power of compassion at work. You start by feeling someone’s pain, then you consider what to do to help them, then you move into an active mindset, based on your desire to improve their well-being.Although compassion is associated with greater health benefits and less stress than emotional empathy on its own, it too can be taken too far. We’ve all heard the term “compassion fatigue,” referring to situations such as healthcare workers being barraged by traumatized patients and losing their ability to empathize because they’re burned out.
We all are limited in our ability to help others, but we can all cultivate and maintain a compassionate mindset. And as Christians, this is part of living a life of sacrificial love, to which we are called by Christ, who set the ultimate example for us.
Compassion in Scripture
In Scripture, possibly the most poignant picture of compassion is found in the story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). In the parable, religious men pass by an injured victim, but the Samaritan (a social outcast), stops. He tends to the victim’s wounds and gives him practical and financial help.
This story illustrates compassion at work; seeing someone in a helpless situation, understanding how they feel, and deciding what steps you can take to help them. Jesus said this is what it means to love your neighbor.
How to Be Empathetic
Cultivating healthy empathy is a lifelong process of growth and not something that can be learned overnight, but here are a few things to keep in mind if you want to become a more balanced, empathetic person:
Imagine how you would feel in someone else’s situation.
Pause and be mindful as you consider this. Taking a moment to put yourself in their position, mentally, will allow you to cultivate compassion as the next step.
Learn to regulate your emotional empathy.
Transition from focusing on the other person’s distress, which is a necessary step, to thinking about what you can do to improve their situation. Helping might mean offering a listening ear or doing an act of kindness. But no matter what it is, taking one step to help them can also benefit you and help you move from empathy to action.
If you struggle with having compassion, you can train your brain to focus on kindness.
Think or journal about ways people have shown you kindness, or how God has been gracious to you.
If you struggle to regulate your empathy, or there’s someone in your life who lacks empathy and you need help setting boundaries, consider Christian counseling for relationship problems or stress. Your counselor can help you identify the areas where you can grow in compassion for others, stay healthy and balanced, and protect yourself from people who might take advantage of you.
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