Empathy, in its broadest sense, is the ability to directly feel something someone else is experiencing as if you were experiencing it yourself. When most people think of empathy, they likely begin and end with this definition. But it’s not that simple.
There is much more to empathy than meets the eye. It’s a complex emotion, with deep-rooted neurological and sociological explanations. And it can manifest in a variety of different ways. Indeed, while people often discuss empathy as if it were one single concept, there are several different distinct empathy types.
There are three common types of empathy: emotional, cognitive, and compassionate empathy. There are also different variations within specific empathy types: empathy can be directed towards the other, or the self. And it can be instinctive, or derived from conscious thought.
Follow along, and we’ll discuss what empathy truly is, the distinctions of its different varieties, and how to practice it more effectively. Let’s start with the basics:
What is Empathy?
As we mentioned, empathy refers to the phenomenon of directly experiencing the feelings of another person. That could apply to emotions or even physical sensations. When you see someone else bang their knee on the corner of the coffee table, you reflexively wince, though your own knee is safe and sound. That is empathy.
Likewise, empathy applies to emotions as well—it refers to when you actively share the feeling another person feels. If you see someone feeling a negative emotion, and you think in the abstract about a time that you felt a similar way, that is sympathy, not empathy. But when you viscerally share that emotion yourself, that is empathy.
Empathy is not confined to negative experiences, either. It is possible to empathize with someone else’s joy or triumph. But typically, when we refer to empathy, it is in the context of negative experiences, or suffering.
Read on to learn more about how and why empathy exists:
Why Do We Feel Empathy
Empathy is, at its core, about connecting with one’s fellow human beings through shared experience. Humans are social creatures, and our survival depends on building strong communal bonds. Empathy is a vital tool in developing these bonds and creating a society based on cooperation and coordination.
How does empathy accomplish this? When we empathize with someone, it helps us understand on a fundamental level that they are a person just like us. It shows us that we are not alone, that other people are going through the same highs and lows that we experience on a day to day basis. That brings us together.
When we see someone else suffering, and we feel their pain as if it were our own, that can have several different significant effects. First of all, commiseration can cause powerful bonding. Some of the most robust communal relationships are forged through shared suffering, and the other person knows that they are not alone, struggling in isolation.
Further, empathizing with someone’s negative situation might cause you to want to help them. If you could walk by a suffering person and feel nothing, you would likely just go about your day. Helping them might not even cross your mind. But when you viscerally sense someone else’s plight, you want to do what you can to relieve their pain. That is one of the ways communities come to exist.
How Do We Feel Empathy
How, exactly, does empathy come to be? What is it that makes us identify with others in such a powerful, direct way? Naturally, there is no single answer to this question. It is a multifaceted phenomenon, one that can manifest in numerous ways and, accordingly, has multiple causes.
There is, however, a direct neurological explanation for some of the more automatic, instinctive empathetic responses.
One of the most revolutionary breakthroughs in neuroscience in recent decades was the discovery of mirror neurons. These are brain cells that reflect, so to speak, what we see in others. Researchers studying brain activity in monkeys noticed that specific neurons activated when the monkeys did an activity, and then also activated when they watched another monkey do that same activity.
In the years since this discovery, scientists have demonstrated that mirror neurons exist in humans as well. They are present in several different areas of the brain, applying to motor skills, physical pain, emotion, and even language.
In some cases, mirror neurons activate at only a fraction of the degree that your brain does when you experience something yourself. In pain centers, for example, neurons fire when you see someone else stub their toe, but your toe certainly doesn’t hurt to the same degree that it would have if you stubbed it yourself. In other areas, though, brain activity can be nearly identical whether you experience something yourself, or whether you simply observed it.
Some researchers believe that mirror neurons are essential for human development. They typically begin to show up before one year of age and are believed to be crucial to an infant’s understanding of human behavior. They also contribute to the way we learn a language. But at all ages, they are directly related to automatic empathy.
Empathy is always about other people, right? Not necessarily. It’s counterintuitive, but empathy can sometimes be selfish! How could that be?
Empathy is, of course, always related to the emotions of other people. But your perception of their feelings can go in one of two directions. When you experience the other person’s feelings, you can focus on their situation, or you can focus on the way you are being affected by their condition.
That orientation plays a significant role in determining whether or not your empathy is productive or harmful. Selfish empathy is typically not intentional, as empathy is, in large part, an intuitive process. You perceive someone else’s emotions and feel them automatically. Naturally, you might respond as if you were just feeling them yourself.
Natural or not, though, this type of empathy is counterproductive. You are experiencing pain and suffering and taking it upon yourself, without offering any support or solution to the other person. That hurts both of you and serves no productive purpose.
For empathy to serve a productive purpose, you have to stay focused on the other person. You are feeling their suffering, but ultimately they are the ones in the adverse situation. You are sharing that experience with them, but it’s not about you. Make sure to keep perspective, or your empathy can lead to an adverse experience for all involved.
Now that we’ve covered the basics let’s move on to some of the more specific nuances of empathy. As we’ve mentioned, empathy isn’t just a catch-all term. There are, in fact, a variety of ways in which it can manifest. Here are some of the most common types of empathy:
Also known as affective empathy, emotional empathy is the type that people most commonly think of when they think of empathy generally. It is, as the name suggests, the ability to share the emotions of another person.
People with high levels of emotional empathy naturally and instinctively experience the emotions of other people. It doesn’t require thought or even choice; it just happens. They see someone come to them in tears, and without even asking what’s wrong, they feel the sadness themselves, on a fundamental level.
They also feel the positive emotions of others, as well. Positive or negative, it’s like the other person’s emotions are contagious.
Benefits of Emotional Empathy
Emotional empathy is a great way to establish deep emotional connections with others. Experiencing someone else’s feelings is a big step towards understanding their feelings. And understanding their feelings is a big step towards understanding them as people.
To an extent, it also helps the other person when you emotionally empathize with their negative feelings. As we’ve mentioned, humans are social creatures. Negative situations are often compounded by an accompanying sense of isolation. To know that someone else understands and is experiencing their pain removes this isolation. It doesn’t eliminate the negative situation, but it does make them feel less alone.
Drawbacks of Emotional Empathy
Emotional empathy is a valuable trait and should be cherished and cultivated. However, it is not without its drawbacks. If you experience other people’s negative emotions too strongly, it can be overwhelming and, at times, outright debilitating. If you take on too many other distressing feelings, on top of your own stress, you will have no emotional energy left to take any proactive action.
One of the distinctive characteristics of emotional empathy is that it is instinctive. But this isn’t always a benefit. When your mirror neurons activate, it is as if you are experiencing whatever the other person is going through. But that means it is your own version of that experience.
One person’s version of sadness may not be the same as your own. If you want to identify with another person truly, you need to work beyond just this initial, surface-level empathetic instinct. That brings us to our next type of empathy.
Cognitive empathy is when you take the time to consider someone else’s position and the way they feel and empathize from there. As opposed to affective empathy, cognitive empathy is not instantaneous and automatic. It is instead something that requires conscious thought and effort and can be an ongoing process.
Cognitive empathy is not mutually exclusive with emotional empathy, and someone with high levels of the latter can practice the former as well. You may observe someone’s situation and experience an instant flash of emotional empathy.
From there, you could refine this instinct, by taking a deeper look at the other person and the specific way that they are experiencing (and being affected by) their emotions. Where emotional empathy is instinctive, cognitive empathy is a choice that requires diligent effort. But it can be worth your while.
Benefits of Cognitive Empathy
Cognitive empathy, simply put, yields a more nuanced and more accurate understanding of the other person. Instinctive emotional empathy can be imprecise, as it is your own perception of the experience.
When you take the time to consider the context of the situation and the way the other person is responding to it, you’ve moved to a deeper level of understanding. Rather than viewing their position through your own lens, you’ve taken the time to work towards the other person’s perspective, on their terms.
You’re still experiencing their feelings directly, but you’re also viewing the situation through their lens as opposed to your own. You’re not just feeling sadness, anger, or pain, but you’re feeling it the specific way that they do.
Cognitive empathy takes practice. We’ll have more information on how to cultivate this type of empathy later on.
Compassionate empathy takes the previous two types a step further. As opposed to merely perceiving and experiencing another person’s emotions, we are allowing that experience to inform our actions towards them.
Compassionate empathy is the end goal towards which all of this has been building. Experiencing someone else’s emotion does have value in and of itself, as we mentioned before—it helps the other person feel less isolated in their suffering. But when we then use this experience to help us decide how to treat the other person, that’s when we truly see the benefits.
The most apparent manifestation of compassionate empathy is when you see someone suffering, and you want to relieve their suffering. Your empathy both motivates you to take action and informs the action that you take.
Benefits of Compassionate Empathy
While all empathy is admirable, compassionate empathy is the ideal form and the ultimate end goal for anyone who strives to be an empathetic person. It has a wide variety of benefits—some expected, others not—for both the subject and the empathizer themselves. Here are some of the most significant:
Reduce the Suffering of Others
The first benefit is the most apparent. When we channel our empathy towards compassion, we set out to reduce the suffering of other people. The benefits here are self-evident and cannot be overstated.
Human beings have risen to the heights we have because of our ability to foster communities and cooperate. It’s easy to lose sight of that now, but being there for one another has never been more critical. When you feel another person’s suffering and take steps to alleviate it, that is one of the most powerful things a person can do.
Avoid Emotional Burnout
When you empathize without compassion, you run the risk of emotional burnout. Suffering for another person without taking steps to alleviate it can be harmful to all parties involved.
A 2013 study examined these effects directly. They found that when participants were trained solely to empathize and were then shown videos of human suffering, several adverse effects arose. There were signs of emotional exhaustion, and participants were less likely to choose to try to help.
When the participants were trained on compassion, however, the results were dramatically different. They played the same videos for the subjects, but the effects of burnout were reversed. The participants were resilient and hopeful. Where neural imaging previously showed activation primarily in the areas responsible for emotional distress, this was no longer the case.
Empathy without compassion produces additional suffering for no productive reason. But compassion provides an outlet. That empathic suffering can now be channeled productively, to improve the situation of the people around you.
Forge Deeper Relationships
We’ve already discussed how one of the most vital effects of all types of empathy is communal bonding. Experiencing the feelings of another person allows you to identify with them on a fundamental level. But compassionate empathy takes things a step further.
Experiencing empathy is beautiful in its own right. But when you allow that empathy to guide the way you interact with members of your community, bonds can become much more profound. Because you understand them on an emotional level, you are able to identify actions that promote the greater good with ease.
You aren’t just acting in your self-interest, you’re operating in the interest of your brethren, and the community as a whole (which, given the social nature of the species, is often in your self-interest as well).
Further, compassion can be contagious. When you do something to improve someone else’s situation, that person will naturally be inclined to “pay it forward” and do the same towards you and others. Understanding one another can form bonds, but compassion solidifies them.
Improve Your Own Mental Health
Stress links with several significant adverse effects to mental health, including depression and anxiety. It also can rewire your brain so that you no longer naturally feel compassion. Compassion is our default state, but in the modern world, we are exposed to potential stressors regularly.
If this is the case for you, you may have to make more of a conscious effort to feel compassion. Never fear, we’ll have much more information on how to do so later on. But if you’re able to accomplish this, compassion has been shown to reduce stress, and therefore drive positive mental health outcomes across the board.
Simply trying to avoid stress is often ineffective. If you passively fixate on avoiding stress, it can consume you and become even more prevalent. Instead, you need something to replace it actively. Instead of merely pursuing the absence of stress, pursue the presence of its opposite—compassion.
Practicing compassionate empathy can help reset the brain to its natural state and undo the damage caused by constant stress. That has a ripple effect of benefits to one’s mental health, reducing the risk of depression and anxiety.
Improve Immune Health
It is readily apparent that stress can have drastic effects on mental health. But did you know that it has physiological effects as well? Chronic stress links to myriad adverse health outcomes, including a weakened immune system. And conversely, compassionate empathy has a tangible link to boosted immune health.
Research has shown that participation in compassionate meditation (a meditative practice designed to help subjects view the world through a compassionate lens) links to a reduction in stress hormones and an improvement in overall immune system outcomes.
The study showed a direct correlation between the regularity with which subjects participated in the meditation program and the amount of stress reduction according to a laboratory test. Compassion improves one’s mindset, and a healthier mind leads to a healthier body.
Cultivating Positive Empathy
When properly channeled, empathy is an incredibly powerful tool. Emotional empathy helps establish relationships with others, cognitive empathy adds nuance and strength to these relationships, and compassionate empathy has a whole host of benefits for both the community and the individual.
But the key to the above paragraph is the phrase “when properly channeled.” Emotional empathy is intuitive, but it can be inaccurate and even lead to selfish, counterproductive outcomes. Cognitive empathy requires practice and effort to get right. And compassionate empathy becomes ever harder to practice, given the constant bombardment of stress omnipresent in modern society.
Chronic stress reframes our default mindset away from empathy and compassion and towards otherization and judgment. All this is to say that while empathy can be a valuable positive force and a worthwhile goal, it can be challenging to be empathetic and compassionate and to channel them in a positive direction.
But positive empathy is a learnable skill. There are numerous techniques and practices—some simple, some in-depth—that can help you become a more empathetic, compassionate person.
One of the primary factors contributing to the prevalence of chronic stress in modern society is the unlimited flow of contact and communication. Current information technology consistently draws your mind away from the here and now. Your past is always documented, so you fixate on mistakes that you can’t change. You can work from home whenever you like. Being unable to check your emails or text messages often fills you with dread.
That is a natural response, but it is, unfortunately, an unhealthy one. The best way to combat this is by practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is about maintaining a singular focus on the present moment. And it is about calmly observing your own emotions and happenings all around you.
Mindfulness serves two purposes when it comes to empathy and compassion. First of all, it is demonstrated to reduce stress, thereby priming your mindset to be compassionate and non-judgemental. And further, by being calmly observant, you can notice the state of those around you, and more easily practice cognitive empathy.
Mindfulness, then, is a perfect practice for every facet of empathy and compassion. It reduces stress, makes you more present, less judgmental, and more aware.
We said there would be some simple practices, and nothing is more straightforward than breathing. But it is also incredibly useful.
Breathing deeply and under control serves multiple purposes as well. If you feel your emotional empathy is overwhelming you, just take a few deep breaths. Focus entirely on your breathing and allow it to bring you back into the present moment.
Deep breathing can also heighten your awareness of the present moment. So it allows you to regulate your emotional empathy and develop cognitive empathy as well.
Focus on the Other Person
We spent some time earlier discussing the pitfalls of self-oriented empathy. When you focus on the way someone else’s emotions affect you, that leads to selfishness and unnecessary additional suffering.
Emotional empathy is mostly intuitive, so your initial reaction might not even be up to you. You notice someone suffering and suddenly are in pain yourself… it’s natural to react to that by focusing on the way you are affected.
The first thing you need to do in this situation is to be aware of your mindset. If you notice that you’re empathizing selfishly, you can take steps to change it. From there, you have to engage your cognitive empathy. Make a conscious choice to shift your focus away from yourself and towards the other person.
When your emotional empathy directs towards yourself, there is no way to channel your suffering in a productive direction. But if you engage your cognitive empathy in a way that shifts focus towards the other person, you can then transition to compassionate empathy. That gives you a way to use the pain you feel productively by taking steps to relieve the suffering of the other person.
A much more in-depth technique, compassionate meditation is a thought exercise dedicated to building compassion. It is a progressive exercise designed to start with something just about anyone can do, and building towards increasingly challenging compassionate thought.
The idea is to imagine a specific individual and wish them happiness. Begin with a loved one—this should be easy for anyone. Move on to yourself. That might be a bit more difficult, as self-love and self-compassion aren’t something everyone is comfortable with. Next, you graduate to a neutral person, then finally, you focus on someone that you do not like.
Completing the final stage of compassionate meditation genuinely and honestly may require a considerable amount of practice. But if you can empathize with and be compassionate towards someone you previously disliked, being compassionate towards the rest of the world will be much easier in comparison.