Empathy is the foundation of close connections and intimacy and plays a huge role in your emotional intelligence. But what exactly is it? Is empathy something you can learn or do you have to be born with it? If you want to find out the answers to these questions and much more, keep on reading.
What Is Empathy?
There are a ton of different definitions of what empathy is. But the most widely accepted one is that it’s the ability to be aware of other people’s feelings, concerns, and needs. It can also be described as the ability to sense what someone else is feeling and imagine or mimic their thoughts and emotions.
Even though empathy is a trait that you’re born with, you still can and should work on it. Most people start learning how to identify their own emotions while they’re still infants. They do that by developing deep and meaningful connections with their caregivers. When a child has its needs recognized and met, it starts showing empathy.
However, for a wide variety of different reasons, some kids never get to experience these connections. In turn, they can later struggle to identify their emotions or keep them in check. Also, they might not feel comfortable in intimate situations later in life.
Why Is Empathy Important?
It seems like every time you open the newspapers or turn on the TV, you see people committing crimes and doing awful things to each other. That just proves what we all already know — humans are capable of selfish, destructive, and cruel behavior.
But the question is, how come that most of us still don’t behave like this or would never knowingly hurt someone else? Of course, the answer to that question is empathy.
Since you can understand how others feel, you’re much less likely to do something that would cause them pain. What’s more, being an empath allows you to cope with stressful situations much better than someone who’s not.
You’re also more likely to help out someone when you see them struggling or being in pain.
The Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy
Although sometimes used interchangeably, sympathy and empathy are not the same. When you’re empathic, you’re identifying someone’s emotions and feeling what they’re feeling.
On the other hand, when you’re being sympathetic, you’re just identifying the situation someone else is in. But you’re not processing or replicating their emotions yourself. For example, you could feel sympathy for sick or injured dogs that you see on the internet, but you can’t copy their emotions.
Another difference between the two is that sympathy rarely makes you act upon your emotions. With sympathy, you’re not building any connections between yourself and the other person.
One of the easiest ways to remember the difference is with one simple phrase: Sympathy is feeling for someone; empathy is feeling with them.
Types of Empathy
There are a couple of different types of empathy that most people can learn in their life, and they include:
Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand someone’s emotions but in a more logical, rather than emotional sense. It’s also known as perspective-taking and it’s an extremely useful skill to have, especially if you work as a manager or negotiator, for example.
If you have cognitive empathy, you can relate to what someone’s going through, without engaging in their emotions. It’s essentially empathy by thought, not feeling.
With that said, there is a dark side to cognitive empathy because you can show it and develop it, without backing it up with sympathy.
For example, those who torture others use cognitive empathy often. They do so to figure out how to inflict pain and hurt someone, without feeling sympathy for them. Also, psychics and palm readers use cognitive empathy to “read” people and scam them.
Building Cognitive Empathy
If you want to work on your cognitive empathy skills, you need to start by taking more social cues. That means you have to pay attention to others around you and make educated guesses about how they’re feeling.
For example, a person’s smile could mean that they’re simply happy. But they could also be smiling as a way to mask pain. To figure out which one it is, consider what you know about that person’s life, their body language, and try to interpret their mood.
Also, don’t rush to judge someone based on your first impressions of them, because your instincts could be wrong.
Emotional empathy is usually the first type you feel when you’re just a child. A good example of it is a baby smiling when it sees their mom or dad smile at them.
If you’re an emotional empath, you can essentially feel everything someone else is feeling. That’s why it’s also known as emotional contagion or personal distress. One of the biggest upsides of this type is that you can easily understand and relate to others around you.
Also, you will feel the desire to help when you see somebody who’s in distress. It’s an excellent skill that anyone in the caregiving business, like doctors and nurses, should have.
On the flip side, emotional empaths can also get easily overwhelmed because of other people’s emotions. They can experience an emotional overload and sometimes can’t respond in a situation.
Luckily, there’s a way for all emotional empaths to avoid having an emotional overload. It all starts with practicing self-control. Before they can start helping others, they have to work hard on keeping their emotions in check.
Building Emotional Empathy
To build emotional empathy, you have to do much more than just observe. You have to get up close and personal and engage with another person. The goal here is to try and empathize with someone and feel what they do.
So while a person is telling you about their struggles, listen carefully. Don’t interrupt, offer solutions, or talk about your experiences. Instead, focus on what they’re telling you and try to understand how they’re feeling and why.
Then, you should take a moment or two to reflect and try to think of a time when you felt the same. Think about the emotions and thoughts that were running through your head.
Of course, you’ll never be able to feel exactly the same, but you’ll be one step closer to understanding emotional empathy. Once the two of you have connected, it’s time to start thinking about taking action, which brings me to my next point — compassionate empathy.
Compassionate empathy combines the two types I’ve mentioned, with a bonus step — taking action. You’ll start by hearing someone out, understanding their problem, empathizing, and trying to help them solve the issue.
It’s the perfect balance between emotional and cognitive empathy and it’s what we should all strive for.
Exercising Compassionate Empathy
Just like with everything in life, practice makes perfect. So if you want to be compassionate, listen to the person you’re talking to and ask directly what you can do to help.
If the person can’t or won’t give you a straight answer, remember a time when you felt the same way. Then, think about the things that helped you cope or what you wish someone had done for you.
Adapt to the situation and the specific circumstances, instead of trying to offer an all-inclusive solution.
Other Types of Empathy
Some people recognize two more types of empathy: somatic and spiritual. However, they’re not particularly popular among most psychologists. That’s because there still isn’t enough research on the two types and almost no ways to determine their presence.
With that said, somatic empathy is defined as the ability to physically feel someone else’s pain. So as a somatic empath, if you saw someone who had a broken leg, yours would start to hurt, too.
There’s also spiritual empathy, which is the ability to establish a connection with a higher being. Also, it could mean that you are able to tap into your consciousness through meditation.
Traits and Habits of Empathic People
Most people who are highly empathic are also extremely curious about strangers. They show a willingness to understand the people and world around them. They’re the people who strike up conversations at a bus stop or the dentist’s office.
So if you want to be more empathic like those people, you have to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Set a challenge for yourself and talk to one stranger every week. But try to go past the mundane topics like the weather, for example, and go for something more meaningful.
Another part of being an empath is challenging your own prejudice about others around you. Instead of focusing on how you’re different from someone, think about the things you have in common.
As you can see, empathy takes many shapes and forms and means different things to different people. Even if you’re not a natural empath but want to learn how to be more compassionate, all it takes is some practice.
So the next time you’re talking with someone, pay close attention to what they’re saying and don’t wander off. Also, remember the second part of compassionate empathy, which is taking action. Try to offer specific solutions to the person’s problem and do what you can to help them cope with the situation.