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What is Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to sense and to a certain extent, experience the emotions of others. It allows us to understand the perspective of our fellow humans, sense their mood, and feel as they would have when experiencing a trauma.
I have always considered empathy to be a positive character trait, but in the past year, it has left me feeling overwhelmed and emotionally drained. I quit my 9-5 to be able to focus on the things I truly love, one of which is doing what I can to help others. I have spent a lot of time volunteering at shelters and old-age homes. Through this blog and support groups, I gave free counselling to people in active distress or going through depression. After every session and visit, I was always left feeling gratified and privileged but also, extremely overwhelmed. I have cried myself into painful migraines, spent days dealing with my own depression at all the pain I have witnessed, and felt guilt at not being able to do more. I am an HSP which may be why this has been so hard for me except that I happen to know people who work full time in shelters, rape centres, orphanages just so that they can help others. Day in, day out, they witness pain, cruelty, trauma without letting it break their stride.
I am close friends with social workers and volunteers who are perhaps much more empathetic than I am and also happen to have a keen understanding of violence, loss, and the damage it can do to a vulnerable soul. While they are sensitive to the pain of others, it engenders reactions that are positive and action-oriented.
The difference in our approach and reaction makes me realise that they have clearly learned to use their empathy as a source of strength. This led me to research the subject and find ways to better manage my emotional responses, and if you’ve faced similar struggles, this post will hopefully help you as well.
The post explores the subject of empathy, its role in our lives, and how best to manage it.
According to Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman, there are three types of empathy -
1. Cognitive Empathy
According to UC Berkley’s Greater Good Magazine, Cognitive Empathy can also be described as ‘perspective taking’, and it refers to our ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions.
2. Emotional Empathy
Emotional empathy is what happens when we experience the pain of others.
2. Compassionate Empathy
Compassionate empathy goes beyond emotions. It drives us to take action and help however we can.
In order to better understand the categories of empathy, let’s go over an example.
A friend loses his business. Every other friend will wish them a quick recovery. The right platitudes will be uttered and an offer of help will be made. This is sympathy and we are all capable of sympathy.
Empathy goes beyond that. Cognitive Empathy will allow us to appreciate just how deeply our friend will be affected by this loss. We’ll be able to gauge the immensity of the loss and what it will mean for our friend’s future.
Emotional empathy will help us go one step further by sharing in the loss felt by the friend. Perhaps, we draw on a similar experience from our past or we use our imagination to feel for ourselves the depth of the loss.
Compassionate empathy will draw on every bit of heart and soul engaged in the loss, and it will motivate us to help our friend. We go over and act as a sounding board or maybe we work on giving them a viable solution. Compassionate empathy demands action.
Empathy vs. Sympathy vs. Compassion
Sympathy simply means to understand what a person is feeling. Empathy, on the other hand, goes beyond basic understanding. While compassion directs empathy towards tangible action.
For Instance, feeling sorry for someone in the event of a tragedy is sympathy. Deeply comprehending and experiencing the pain as someone else suffers is empathy. Now, compassion will compel you to do what you can to alleviate their suffering.
Sympathy is a lot easier to feel than empathy, and to turn that emotion into positive and constructive action in the benefit of another human being, putting aside your own emotions and interests is harder still.
Is empathy a strength or a weakness?
Empathy is definitely the bedrock of all human relationships. Without the ability to understand the perspective of others, deep emotional connections will be impossible. According to Hodges and Myers, “Many of the most noble examples of human behavior, including aiding strangers and stigmatized people, are thought to have empathic roots.”
As shared in the white paper published by the Centre for Creative Leadership, Empathy is fundamental to leadership. Transformational leaders need empathy in order to show their followers that they care for their needs and achievement. As per a data study conducted by the organisation, it seems that empathy is positively related to job performance.
Fields like healthcare, social work, teaching, and even marketing are best suited for empaths. The performance in such areas of work hinges on a genuine connection with one’s target audience.
Most importantly, in order to become a better parent, partner, we must have empathy. The generation gap that’s so often accused of being the cause behind the discord between parents and children is nothing but an inability to appreciate the perspective of others. Every relationship works on the principle of reciprocity which again requires a connection deep enough to allow us to consider the needs of others above our own.
Despite all these advantages, empathy can be a massive drain on our emotional health.
A lot of people avoid volunteer work because it brings into such clarity the disparity between our circumstances and that of all those less fortunate, leading to guilt, disappointment, and even anger. In a way, empathy is what causes a lot of us to embrace deliberate ignorance of the realities of life so as to avoid living with the knowledge of just how cruel the world can be.
Such emotional burnout is labelled, Empathy Fatigue.
How you can manage empathy to avoid burnout -
1. Choose Compassion over Empathy
Reading through the post, one thing must be fairly obvious, while compassion and empathy share the same premise, compassion is a considerably more constructive and positive emotion than empathy.
Take doctors, for instance, their job would be impossible if they didn’t maintain an emotional distance from their patients. At the same time, if they were indifferent, they would also be ineffective at their job. Innovation in a field like medicine is driven by a doctor or scientist’s wish to help the rest of humanity. Recognition comes second to healing.
Doctors show compassionate concern, not empathy.
Studies conducted in the area have revealed that compassion and empathy trigger different parts of the brain. Compassion triggers a warm, positive state with dominant feelings of love and affiliation. Empathy, on the other hand, triggers negative emotions and a sense of futility and exhaustion. Studies show that empathetic response fires ‘mirror neurons’ resulting in emotions identical to those of the person actually suffering. If you suffer with someone, it might render you incapable of doing what’s necessary with any degree of detachment. The focus shifts to a selfish need to soothe your own negative emotions and find a way to feel better.
Compassion allows you to maintain focus on others giving you just enough detachment to help without feeling the trauma for yourself.
The reason compassion has empathy beat is because compassion expresses itself through actions. It drives you to help and get involved which empathy is selfish in that it trains your focus inward on combating your own distress.
Fortunately, compassion can be cultivated. It is a trainable skill.
‘…compassion training increased altruistic redistribution of funds to a victim encountered outside of the training context. Furthermore, increased altruistic behavior after compassion training was associated with altered activation in brain regions…These results suggest that compassion can be cultivated with training and that greater altruistic behavior may emerge from increased engagement of neural systems implicated in understanding the suffering of other people…’
Mindful meditations can help. Loving-kindness meditation (meta meditation) is highly recommended as a way of increasing compassion and soothing empathy fatigue. It can help you forge deeper emotional connections and increase your capacity for kindness.
Compassionate training can also help you regulate emotions and reach a better balance.
2. Self-awareness to self-management
Self-awareness is necessary for success, be it in our emotional or professional life. In this particular context, self-awareness is important because it is the only way to understand your own priorities and emotional needs. Better self-awareness can lead to better self-management.
You can’t combat empathy fatigue if you don’t recognise its signs. Awareness of our own emotional needs can help us identify the signs of self-neglect giving us the opportunity to step away and shift our focus on our own emotional health. Actively practise self-love and self-compassion to avoid the empathy trap.
A Guide to Better Self-Awareness
3. Establish boundaries and repeatedly reinforce them
Create a better balance by establishing boundaries. The concept of neuroplasticity tells us that we can train our brain to give up old habits and adopt new, healthier ones. You can do the same with your empathy responses. When you feel yourself getting sucked into someone else’s pain, step away. Healthy empathy requires distance. Balance your own needs with the needs of others.
In relationships, we often subvert our own needs for the benefit of our loved ones. Such relationships set dangerous expectations and toxic patterns that go unidentified for a long time. Boundaries are important, no matter the nature of the relationship. Empathy may get in the way of that which is why you must repeatedly reinforce the boundaries you’ve established. It may be hard but over time, it will become easier and the necessity for it will also become apparent to all the parties involved.
4. Actively practice self-care
If we practice self-care on a regular basis, burnout won’t even get a look in. Regular self-care involves constantly checking-in on our emotional state and taking immediate steps to sooth away any lingering distress. A self-care regime can be as simple as regular exercise and healthy eating or it can be fancier with spa appointments, weekend getaways.
A better and much more reliable way to practice self-care and self-love is by adopting a practice like visualisation, yoga, or some form of meditative mindfulness. Visualisation is one of the best ways to destress and find harmony despite the push and shove of life.
5. Seek Professional Help
If empathy is a constant battle for you, seek professional help. Therapy might just be the only way for you to find relief. A professional can guide you to a resolution that restores lasting balance. If the idea of therapy makes you uncomfortable, you can join a support group. They provide a safe space to share and express emotions that may be too overwhelming to be shared with a friend or family member.
I have always felt that those of us with better health, education, and resources should absolutely help those struggling through less fortunate circumstances. It is not a privilege or a choice, it should be considered a duty, and I have not heard any argument that has convinced me otherwise. At the same time, I also feel that submerging yourself in guilt is unhelpful and ultimately, selfish. Refusing to enjoy the good things in life would be ungrateful. So, now I try to balance things by celebrating those I have successfully helped and consciously giving myself permission to enjoy my life.
Also, if you habituate yourself to react in the face of distress with actions and not emotions, compassion will carry the day.
If you have any suggestions, do share them in the comments section. This is one subject that can be endlessly discussed, and I am sure we all have unique ways of dealing with emotional distress in our lives.