Recently a firefighter shared with me that when the sympathy he felt for the people he helped turned to empathy, things changed for him for the worse. He explained that sympathy allowed him to feel compassion for those he helped but tapping into empathy put him directly in the place of another’s suffering, identifying with them. The reality of this struck him when he could relate to the loss of a child and identified deeply with the parents while reflecting on his own child at home. Rather than just feeling bad for the other person, he shared their feelings and deeply felt their pain. This firefighter then was consumed and overwhelmed. It had me wondering; Is it a good thing to be empathetic?
I see many social media posts these days on empathy. I hear topics on “How to know you are an empath” or “The downside of empathy.” My head starts to swirl, and I find myself getting frustrated. Recently I saw a post titled “How to know you are empathetic.” It had many negative signs such as: worrying about what others think of you, being physically drained by social situations, emotions making you feel physically ill, and overthinking. Who wants those negative experiences? Not me!
Then I noted the “I am” statement, such as “I am an empath.” Is this a good thing? Is it better to possess a quality or BE it? The “I am” statement is likely the most powerful self-statement we will ever have, as it is the motherlode of all affirmations. But I will save this topic for another blog post.
So, what is sympathy, empathy and what is an empath?
Sympathy and empathy are, without question, traits that are collectively good. As a society, we need to acknowledge and attempt to understand what others are experiencing and provide support. This is often what drives health professionals and first responders to seek the type of work they do.
Feeling sympathy for someone is a surface-level acknowledgment and observation of someone's feelings or a situation that they are going through. This usually occurs around adverse scenarios and is communicated through commiseration, condolences, and even pity. That does not mean it is terrible, but it does demonstrate a distance between someone feeling sympathy and the situation they are connecting with. Sympathy does not require someone to experience another's emotions and allows them to be detached from the situation.
Empathy is a much broader and more intense emotional response to others; you connect to the feelings of another person, not just their situation. Another way to look at this is that instead of feeling with someone (sympathy), you feel and experience a part of their emotional state because you are seeing things from their perspective.
So, what makes it more natural for one person to feel more empathetic than sympathetic in a situation? Personal experience of a similar scenario is a significant factor. When you have lived through and struggled with a similar problem or similar features to your own experience, this can enhance someone’s empathetic qualities. It can help them connect more deeply with an individual going through the same experiences. In the health profession, empathy is a skill deeply entrenched in the education program so that accurate assessments and meaningful interventions can be incorporated. There is no getting away from this.
Being an empath seems to be on another level. Empaths appear to take on these emotional and physical feelings; they absorb them as well. While empathy causes us to feel deeply for others, empaths literally experience others' emotions as their own. As a result, Empaths deal with an enhanced mental load compared with an ordinary empathic person. They can experience physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach issues due to their extreme exposure to so many difficult emotions.
Types of Empathy
Cognitive empathy: the ability to understand how a person feels and what they might be thinking. This type is more of a perspective-taking and is focused more on thoughts, intellect, and understanding. While it helps more with perspective taking, it is more disconnected from the emotions of another.
Emotional empathy: the ability to share the feelings of another person. This type is focused on emotions and feelings and helps build emotional connections with others. While it helps build interpersonal relationships, it can be overwhelming, impair objectivity, and lead to burnout.
Compassionate empathy: goes beyond merely understanding others and sharing their feelings: it moves us to act, to help, however we can. This considers the whole person but is also a protective response. It takes the good things about the other two types to link both objectivity, emotional connection, and action. (stay tuned for another blog dedicated only to compassion).
What is necessary to have a healthy relationship with empathy?
Mindfulness – take a time out to calm and ground yourself so that you can self-support and gain insights.
Perspective – determine whether what is being felt arises from your own emotions or that of another.
Differentiation – awareness of both self and others and how they differ (see blog on differentiation).
Take charge - take charge of emotions rather than succumb to them. Work on emotion regulation techniques to soothe your own distress at another’s pain or discomfort.
Mental flexibility – increase your awareness of the difference between your emotions and thoughts.
Boundaries – significant limits around what you can take on and set limits as needed to preserve your well being. Seek support for the guilt you may experience to ensure it is not immersed into shame.
So back to my original question, is it good to be empathetic? Yes! I took a course recently, and one of the instructors, Dr. Estera Boldut, shared that “the difference between one’s distress and being able to help is connected to one’s capacity for self-regulation.” Ultimately, we need more empathy in the world; it is what makes the human experience so meaningful. As Brene Brown shares, “Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.” Brown also states, “Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”
Special note to health professionals and first responders: The work we do does require empathy as we are regularly thrust into very complex human experiences. It's ok to shift in our capacities. We may need to be more sympathetic than empathetic at times. We may need to embrace cognitive empathy to gain distance from overwhelming emotional experiences. It is ok. Keep reaching for compassion empathy so you can provide the human connection necessary in our work while caring for ourselves. Please check back soon for my blog on the benefits of compassion. While empathy can create 'strain for our brains', compassion activates positive components of our brain's capacity and health!
The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World: Jamil Zakihttps: //www.youtube.com/watch?v=xpNt7LqYM9Y
Book: The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World Hardcover – by. Jamil Zaki (Author)
Brené Brown on Empathy - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw
6 Things You Need to Know About Empathy https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/tech-support/201701/6-things-you-need-know-about-empathy
Photo #1 by freestocks on Unsplash
Photo #2 by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash