This post was updated on Feb 25, 2023
Depending on who you ask, it’s likely that you’ll run into a number of different definitions of empathy. Still, most of them would agree to the following statement, or at least a variation of it: Empathy can be defined as the capacity to understand and feel what another person is experiencing.
It is an attempt to better understand what another person is feeling and thinking, without sharing the same circumstances or experiences. Essentially, when you feel empathy, you’re trying to see a situation from another person’s perspective and feel how it makes them feel.
Empathy is necessary for building healthy relationships and avoiding emotional intimacy issues. It helps you connect and relate to others in a meaningful way, thus facilitating lasting social and professional relationships.
What Type Of Emotion Is Empathy?
Empathy is a broad concept that usually refers to the emotional and cognitive reactions of a person to the perceived experiences of another person. It is not a single emotion, but rather an ability to understand the emotions of others, trying to perceive the situation from their point of view. Empathy essentially refers to the capacity to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand the intentions, perspectives, and needs of others.
What Are The 3 Types Of Empathy?
Not everybody experiences the same levels and kinds of empathy. In fact, psychologists suggest that there may be three distinct types of empathy:
Emotional empathy, otherwise known as affective empathy, is usually the first kind of empathy people experience as children. If you are able to literally feel the emotions of another, as if you’d “caught” them, you are experiencing emotional empathy. Because of its nature, emotional empathy is also known as “emotional contagion” or “personal distress”.
Cognitive empathy is when you are able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and take their perspective, without necessarily feeling their emotions. It is defined by understanding the emotions of others on an intellectual level. Cognitive empathy can be seen as “empathy by thought” instead of feeling.
The third type of empathy is known as compassionate empathy. It is when you are able to both feel and understand someone’s pain and take action to help them. Also known as empathic concern, this type of empathy motivates you to either take action to help another person or help them resolve the problem.
People have the capacity to experience all these three types of empathy. While cognitive and emotional empathy can have immense value, they are sometimes not enough for facilitating change and building strong personal relationships.
Imagine that your friend has experienced a loss in their family. If you experience only cognitive empathy, you’ll be able to understand their grief and pain, but may not be motivated to help. With emotional empathy, you might be brought to tears and get paralyzed by your friend’s pain.
Compassionate empathy, however, means that you understand and feel the pain of your friend, but also feel motivated to take action to help them. For instance, you may cook them a meal or spend more time with them to make them feel less lonely.
Can You Feel Sympathy Without Empathy?
Many people are confused by the difference between empathy and sympathy, and for a good reason. These two words are tightly related, but not interchangeable. At its simplest form, sympathy can be defined as feeling sorrow and pity for another person’s misfortune without necessarily cognitively understanding their pain and feeling motivated to help. If you experience sympathy, you may feel care or concern for others, but may not share their distress.
You can feel sympathy without empathizing with someone. Empathy, on the other hand, usually entails some form of sympathy, in addition to the shared perspective or shared emotions one feels when they experience cognitive or emotional empathy.
Can You Lose Your Empathy?
There are several circumstances in which a person may “lose” empathy. Here are some examples:
- You may be pushing your emotions away and numbing out. If you’ve felt apathetic for a while, because of depression or other life circumstances, you may also lose your ability to empathize with other people.
- Gradually losing empathy can be a symptom of compassion fatigue, a condition characterized by physical and emotional exhaustion that decreases one’s ability to empathize. This is particularly common in nurses, caregivers, and other vocations that entail helping other people and being exposed to their pain.
- Certain psychological disorders can also cause a lack of empathy. These can be a result of early childhood experiences, physical or psychological trauma, genetics, disease, or brain damage.
Can A Person Without Empathy Love?
Love doesn’t necessarily include empathy. For instance, you may care for your partner and wish to nurture a lasting relationship with them, but fail to understand their needs. Lacking empathy doesn’t mean that you’re entirely emotionless, it simply means that you are unable to understand and share the feelings and needs of your partner.
Nevertheless, empathy is crucial for making personal relationships thrive. In order to revive your dying relationship, you and your partner would benefit from learning how to truly understand each other and empathize with one another . Unless you’re moving forward with both your needs and those of your partner in mind, your relationship will be at risk to end.
Are You Experiencing Intimacy Problems In A Relationship? Contact PIVOT Now!
If you are motivated to better understand and help the people around you, receiving guidance and support from professionals can be of immense help. At PIVOT, we are dedicated to helping our clients overcome their emotional issues and heal their core wounds with compassion and commitment. We are here to provide you with the tools and resources you need to understand yourself and others and facilitate positive behavioral change.
We offer both compassionate and comprehensive individual coaching sessions and relationship-building workshops and retreats that can help you improve your relationships and your emotional wellbeing. Speak with a PIVOT consultant today and begin your journey to achieving emotional balance.