What is empathy?
Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s experience and imagine their situation, as if it’s being experienced by themselves, without actually taking place in that person’s objective reality. Empathy is important. It allows us to build social connections with others. As social creatures, prosocial traits like empathy have developed in humans as an evolutionary advantage.
Evolutionary root of empathy
Social scientists suggest that empathy evolved in the context of caring for infants. Emotional signals such as an infant crying cues caregivers into behavioural responses (i.e., feeding the child), which meant that more responsive mothers would reproduce at a higher rate, supposedly.
Two types of empathy
The role of empathy extends beyond childrearing. It plays a part in everyday life. Demonstrating empathy allows the other person to feel supported and understood, which strengthens social bonds and connections between people. Psychologists differentiate between two main types of empathy: cognitive and emotional.
Cognitive empathy (‘perspective-taking’) refers to the ability to intellectually understand and mentally imagine the experience another person.
Emotional empathy (‘emotion-sharing’) refers to the ability to share and experience the emotions and feelings of the other.
Both types are important in order to acknowledge what someone else may be experiencing and to show care and concern for them.
Empathy and social functioning
Research suggests that empathy is associated with improved social and interpersonal functioning: for instance, people with higher empathy tend to report larger social circles and more satisfying relationships. Conversely, empathy deficiency (e.g., as observed in patients with narcissistic personality disorder) is often associated with impaired social function.
Doesn’t that suggest that the more empathy you have, the better off you will be?
Not exactly. More recently, scientists have begun to examine the negative implications of excessive empathy. While showing empathy is good, the old adage of ‘too much of a good thing’ applies. With a healthy balance of empathy (particularly emotional empathy), we are able to empathetically respond and share the emotional experience of another person. However, when our emotional empathy becomes unrestrained, it can cross over into the dangerous territory of taking on the another person’s emotions. Known as ‘empathetic reactivity’ or ‘hyper-empathy’ across various psychology circles, researchers generally agree that excessive empathy can be dangerous for both yourself, and the other person.
Empathetic reactivity impacts the ability to separate ‘the self’ from ‘the other’. With this comes a tendency to feel responsible for, or take ownership of, the other person’s distressing emotions. Besides impeding social relationships and potentially being disempowering for the other person, empathetic reactivity can contribute to burnout or emotional fatigue, jeopardising our own mental health.
Empathetic reactivity can manifest through any one or combination of the following signs:
- Feeling drained / exhausted after spending time with others
- Inability or discomfort saying ‘no’ to others
- Tendency to place your own needs last
- Disproportionate emotional reactions (e.g., crying when you see someone hurt) and/or physical reactions (e.g., feeling sick to your stomach when someone else is anxious)
- Inability to ‘release’ your emotional response to someone else’s pain and instead, remaining with the emotions for a prolonged period of time (e.g., hours, or even days).
If empathetic reactivity is creating difficulties throughout your day-to-day life, or you find yourself overreacting to various situations which impede your life functioning, you may wish to consider speaking to a professional for some advice. The Centre of Psychological Enrichment team are available to support you in your personal mental health journey and can work with you to create your desired change. CONTACT US – Copecentre
- Depow, G. J., Francis, Z., Inzlicht, M. (2021). The Experience of Empathy in Everyday Life. Psychological Science, 32(8), p1198-1213. doi: 1177/0956797621995202
- Riess, H. (2017). The Science of Empathy. Journal of Patient Experience, 4(2), p74-77. doi: 1177/2374373517699267
- Kardos, Leidner, Pleh, Soltesz, Unoka (2017). Empathic people have more friends […], Social Networks, 50, p1-5. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socnet.2017.01.004
- Baskin-Sommers, A., Krusemark, E., & Ronningstam, E. (2014). Empathy in Narcissistic Personality Disorder: From Clinical and Empirical Perspectives. Personality Disorders, 5(3), p323-333. doi: 1037/per0000061