When a friend doesn’t get that job they’ve been dreaming about for months, we understand what they might be going through and console them.
When they lose a loved one, end a relationship, or are going through a difficult time in their life, we can put ourselves in their shoes and offer them a shoulder to cry on.
When a country is hit by a tragic event, people all over the world feel the pain and unite their forces to help.
These are all examples of empathy, one of the most important human emotions.
In psychology, empathy is defined as the ability to understand another person’s emotions, be them positive and negative, and place yourself in their position. When a person has empathy towards someone, that doesn’t necessarily mean they will also rush to their help. However, empathy is an important first step towards compassion.
Empathy is often confused with sympathy, but the two are not synonymous: having sympathy for someone means that you relate to their feelings through your own lens, while having empathy means that you can step outside yourself and see things from their point of view.
Scientists have identified three types of empathy:
- Cognitive empathy. Also known as perspective-taking, this type of empathy refers to our ability to understand the other person’s perspective and identify the right way to react to their emotions.
- Affective empathy. This refers to how we feel in response to another person’s emotions. For example, if a friend is anxious before a major event, we can mirror that anxiety.
- Compassionate empathy. This type of empathy combines cognitive and affective empathy and makes you want to help the person in emotional distress.
A person with normal empathy levels should be able to understand other people’s emotions and respond to them when necessary. For example, if you hear news about a natural disaster, feel sorry for what the victims are going through, and decide to donate to help, that is a normal level of empathy. But when you are hyper-empathetic to another’s emotions, or you’re not empathetic at all, you may have an empathy disorder.
What is empathy disorder?
Empathy disorder appears when your levels of empathy are either too high (hyper-empathy syndrome) or too low (empathy deficit disorder).
Hyper-empathy syndrome occurs when you are too in tune with other people’s emotions and mirror them to the same intensity. In other words, you care too much. People with hyper-empathy may find it hard to regulate their emotions and may have a tendency to pick up on negative feelings.
The symptoms of hyper-empathy include:
- You have strong emotional reactions when other people experience negative feelings. Sometimes, these reactions are intense even if you’re only looking at a photo or a movie and may include physical symptoms (stomach ache, nausea).
- You still feel an emotional response to another person’s pain a few days after it happened.
- You feel overwhelmed after talking to people about their problems because it’s as if they’re happening to you.
- You’re so focused on other people’s problems you neglect taking care of yourself.
- You find it hard to say no to people because you feel sorry for them.
People with hyper-empathy are often labelled as overly sensitive, and, to a certain extent, being more in tune with people’s emotions can help you build meaningful connections. However, left unmanaged, hyper-empathy can be harmful to your mental health because it can make you pursue co-dependent relationships, have poor personal boundaries, and neglect your own needs.
Hyper-empathy can also be a symptom of borderline personality disorder (BPD), which is why it’s important to talk about it with a professional and find a healthy way of regulating your emotions.
Empathy deficit disorder
Empathy deficit disorder is the polar opposite of hyper-empathy syndrome. If hyper-empathetic people care too much and are emotionally invested in someone else’s pain, people with empathy deficit disorder can’t understand this pain. Most of the time, affective empathy is the one that is lacking.
People with empathy deficit disorder:
- Tend to focus on their own needs and neglect other people’s emotions, even those of close friends and family.
- Struggle to build and maintain emotional connections.
- Can be overly judgemental of others and underestimate what others are going through.
- Don’t usually show appreciation or gratitude.
- Struggle to understand people from a different cultural, political, or religious background.
Like hyper-empathy, lack of empathy can become harmful to your mental health. As human beings, we need empathy to connect with others and develop meaningful relationships. When that empathy is lacking, this becomes significantly harder to do, which can lead to isolation and loneliness. Lacking empathy can also make you more prone to conflicts.
Empathy deficit disorder can be a symptom of bipolar disorder. It’s also more common in antisocial and narcissistic personality types and people who are on the autism spectrum. At the same time, certain professions, such as surgeon, for instance, can actually diminish a person’s empathy.
How to understand empathy disorders
Although many people assume that we’re born with empathy, empathetic behaviours can actually be taught and regulated. The way we relate to other people’s emotions can change throughout our lives, depending on factors such as upbringing, family dynamics, culture, career choice, and relationships. If you’re hyper empathetic, you can learn to regulate your emotions, find healthy outlets to express them and care for others without neglecting your personal wellbeing. If you lack empathy, you can learn to develop it through mindfulness and reflection exercises.
The management of empathy disorders greatly depends on the underlying cause, but both hyper-empathy syndrome and empathy deficit disorder can be managed. If you find it hard to connect with others because you can’t relate to their feelings, or you find yourself emotionally drained because you’re too empathetic, talking to a certified counsellor could help you explore the source of the problem and ways to address it.