Too much or not enough empathy?
What is empathy?
Empathy is the ability to feel, understand and respond to others' emotions in a way that supports others while being able to distance oneself from them to avoid finding oneself in distress and suffering. Empathy requires self-awareness and the ability to put one's own world aside to come to understand the emotional world of the other.
Empathy is broken down into three complementary skills:
Cognitive empathy or understanding of emotions
This is about the ability to spot and understand the emotions of others. A good example is a psychotherapist who understands the client's emotions rationally but does not necessarily share the client's emotions in a visceral sense.
Affective empathy or sharing of emotion
This is the ability to feel an appropriate emotion in response to that expressed by others. People with high affective empathy are those who strongly feel the suffering of others.
This refers to the ability to distinguish between the emotions of others and one's own and to regulate one's emotional responses. Emotional regulation requires a good knowledge of oneself, of one's thoughts, emotions and reactions.
What is empathy for?
Numerous studies in social and developmental psychology indicate that empathy is a factor that favours social behaviours on which the survival of the human species depends. The biology of evolution teaches us that specialised neurobiological mechanisms have evolved to enable humans to perceive, understand, predict and respond to the inner states of other individuals.
Research suggests that empathy offers many social and psychological benefits:
- The person who receives empathy feels understood, less alone and therefore less vulnerable. More serene, he will be better able to mobilise his resources to find solutions. His level of anxiety will decrease.
- The person expressing empathy feels useful and valued. His level of self-esteem and self-confidence will increase. The person will be able to establish a relationship of trust with others and his relationships will be more intimate and authentic.
Contrary to what one might think, understanding the negative emotions of others does not increase the level of anxiety but decreases it. If you are able to understand why your partner is sad, you will feel more empowered and more able to help. On the other hand, if you are unable to understand what is happening to your partner, you might feel overwhelmed by the situation at hand. Understanding the feelings of the other person reduces the risk of aggressive behaviour in the relationship.
If you empathise with your colleague’s shame at being humiliated by a participant in a meeting, you might be able to forgive his leaving the meeting early. You might also be more understanding about working with him again in future. If you are attentive to the feelings of your partner, you will not throw away the old broken chair of her grandfather who has just passed away. By recognising the symbolic role of that chair in your partner’s life, you may be able to muster feelings of compassion for them. It is not a question here of reasoning, but of accepting the subjectivity of feelings. The chair does not represent much for you, but for your partner, it is the means by which they might be able to mourn their grandfather’s death. This might have a follow-on effect of creating balance and harmony in one’s relationship in the future.
Can we have too much or not enough empathy?
Empathy develops from an early age in contact with adults who take care of the child. The adults will respond to the needs of the child consistently while setting limits that correspond to the rules of social and emotional life. While exploring its environment and its limits, the child will learn to adapt to the constraints and needs expressed by others. If the needs of others are poorly expressed, if no limits are fixed on the wishes of the child, it will become difficult for him to understand the universe of others and thus to put himself in their place. As adults, some people fail to understand or respond appropriately to the needs of others. This results in professional or personal conflicts and ruptures in communication. Their struggle to be empathic keeps them locked in a self-centred or uniquely objective and logical world, which blocks their access to the inner world of others and therefore to all kind of intimacy. Often, people who lack empathy towards others also deny themselves deep access to their own subjectivity and feelings.
On the other hand, in some people, empathy comes naturally. They have no difficulty seeing things from the point of view of a friend or colleague. But pushed to an extreme level, empathy can become harmful. Because of trauma or attachment issues, some children could not gain a sense of sufficient inner security to deal with social and effective relationships in a calm manner. They live with the worry of not being loved and spend a lot of their energy on finding what would make them likeable. All their actions are then oriented in order to understand the needs of their parents and fulfil them. These children are often anxious, developing a hyper vigilance that will allow them to study and understand finely the inner life of their parents. A whole childhood is spent observing the parents in every detail to understand how to please them and hopefully, to be loved by them. In adulthood, it is in this type of personality that one finds the highest degree of empathy but also a high level of anxiety due to the fear of abandonment, a lack of affirmation from loved ones and a tendency to develop low self-esteem.
Can we learn to be more empathic?
Feeling the emotions of others helps us remember we are accountable for our actions and to be respectful of others' feelings. It is work in progress and never too late to learn how to “walk in others' shoes” in order to improve our relationships.
Here are some steps to help you develop your empathy:
- Observe the gestures, the postures, the expressions, the vocabulary, the look, the way of expressing of the person.
- Be curious about others values and story.
- Put your frame of reference, your values and your story aside.
- Do not judge the feelings of the other. Try to stop your critical self. Do not question the feelings expressed by the other and start from the idea that their feelings are valid and authentic.
- Be attentive to your internal reactions, your emotions, your physical reactions and your thoughts.
- Formulate what you think the person feels and how you feel in response.
- Write your emotions down.
How can therapy help you regulate your empathy?
At the heart of empathy is curiosity; the humble and genuine desire to know and accept others with their differences. Becoming empathic means first of all wanting to know others and who they really are behind the façade they offer to protect themselves. For some people, it is difficult to be curious towards others often because they are not curious about themselves. They cannot recognise the emotions of others, because they themselves have not learned to identify and put words on their own emotions. A psychotherapist can set up a treatment that will help to develop curiosity for yourself. He will allow you to name and explore your emotions to better recognise them in others. The therapist will help you to see your own experiences from a different point of view in order to recognise and accept the existence of other frames of reference. Finally, the therapist will be empathic towards you. Benefiting from empathic listening should engage you to replicate this empathy outside of the therapy room.
At the other end of the spectrum, too much empathy can cause distress, increase anxiety, and lower self-esteem. In some people, empathy is exacerbated by a fear of abandonment that can lead to sacrificing one's well-being to the benefit of loved ones. A therapist can help you explore the reasons for your fear of abandonment in order to gain control of your emotions and self-confidence. By regaining your self-esteem, you will be able to better protect yourself from the suffering of others while continuing to give them the empathic support they need. The appropriate level of empathy is one where the relationship feels safe and balanced, where two people feel known and understood by the other without having to lie or be hurt. The empathy of your therapist should give you the experience of a relationship where you can be yourself without being judged. In return, you will learn to be fairer to yourself.
If you feel judged by your therapist, tell him. He will explore with you the feelings associated for you to judgement. While gaining more understanding of what is happening in the therapy room between your therapist and you, you will find a way to establish relationships where you feel fully accepted and free to be yourself. Discovering who you are and accepting yourself will be the first step in making others want to know you authentically and accept you, with your strengths and weaknesses.
I sincerely wish you the best of luck in that fulfilling journey.
Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.
About Sonia Cerqueira
Sonia Cerqueira is a French psychologist who provides therapy both in French and in English.
She sees adult and child clients for short-term counselling and longer-term psychotherapy and uses a range of modern approaches depending on client needs.
-BPS Chartered Psychologist and BACP registered.
-Registered provider for AVIVA, AXAPPP, VITALITY.