Empathy and being empathetic

The essentials you need to know about empathy

Empathy is best described as the mental capacity to understand what someone else may be feeling. Empathy is, therefore, often picked up on via visual cues, such as seeing the distress of someone else. In other cases, it can be much more intuitive, however. The ability to show empathy is desirable because it means being able to create a deeper bond with others. When someone is empathetic towards you, it can be a comfort. Remember that empathetic thoughts mean you put yourself in someone else's shoes and see it from their point of view. It is not simply the ability to spot a different emotional state in someone else.

 What are the main types of empathy?

Psychologists often refer to three classes of empathy – affective, cognitive and somatic. The first type is the most common. It relates to emotional understanding and means that appropriate responses can be made. On the other hand, cognitive empathy means being able to perceive the wider mental state of another. It might mean being able to second-guess what someone else might do and anticipate accordingly. Crucially, this type of empathetic class could be equally applied to a fictional character as much as a real person. Finally, somatic empathy means mirroring the physical state of another, such the overwhelming desire to weep when you see someone else crying.

Why do we feel empathy?

Although some people have little empathetic emotions, most people experience it, especially in heightened emotional states. Theories vary as to why people are empathetic. It certainly seems to act as a social glue by allowing people to understand how others in their society may be feeling or thinking without the need for verbal communication. Anger is a typical empathetic response to seeing someone being mistreated which may link at a profound level to our sense of social justice, for example. Some people with certain conditions, such as Asperger's syndrome or autism, may have a diminished capacity for empathy. That means they need to develop alternative methods for 'reading' others that empathetic people find is natural to them.

Is there such a thing as too much empathy?

Those who are hypersensitive to the emotions of others can feel overwhelmed by their empathetic feelings. Although rare, some people report that they feel physical pain when they are close to others in emotional distress. In the main, however, anyone with empathetic emotions knows when to limit their support for others. This is because they also sense when their sympathy is no longer wanted – thanks to empathy, of course!

What is the difference between empathy and sympathy?

It is worth mentioning that sympathy is a distinct emotion and not the same as empathy. Sympathy implies pity, whereas, on the other hand, empathy implies understanding.

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Often regarded as something that is related to empathy, compassion is the feeling that comes when you notice someone or something, that is suffering. You may not be able to put yourself into the shoes of the person you are feeling compassionate about. However, having compassion for them means that at least you understand that they in difficulty. What happens after this feeling is felt does not necessarily flow from the sense of compassion. One might, for example, feel compassionate about a child that is in anguish but do nothing about its suffering. On the other hand, if it leads you to comfort the child or to alleviate its pain in some way, then this would be rightly regarded as a compassionate act. Compassion is first and foremost an emotional response, therefore, but it can lead to compassionate actions being subsequently taken, too.
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