From a young age, our parents preached why empathy is important. “Put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” they would say. As parents today, we practice that same empathy with our children when they throw a tantrum or cry about a crush. But could all of this caring come at a cost?
What does empathy mean and why is it important?
Empathy — which is your ability to share and understand another person’s feelings and emotions —is important for human relationships. “When someone feels seen and heard by you, they begin to trust you,” Robin Stern, the associate director at Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence, told the Washington Post.
And while empathy is important, it can become all-consuming. Parents are probably all too familiar with getting so wrapped up in your child’s thoughts and emotions that you neglect your own needs. According to Stern, those who prioritize someone else’s emotions above their own are more likely to develop a low-level depression or experience anxiety.
“Being supportive of those we care about is among our most cherished and important roles,” Jamil Zaki, a Stanford psychology assistant professor says, “but it’s also one that’s fraught: We want to be there for someone but not lose ourselves.”
When empathy is a problem
A 2016 study published in the journal Health Psychology found that levels of parental empathy correlated with psychological and physiological well-being in their adolescent children. Essentially, the more empathic a parent was with their child, the more well-adjusted their kid was.
However, researchers also found that empathic parents were more likely to be dealing with low-grade inflammation. They posited that “Parents who readily engage with the struggles and perspectives of others may leave themselves vulnerable to additional burdens, expending physiological resources in order to better help others.”
What can you do to protect yourself while also remaining empathetic? Psychologists divide empathy into three different categories: emotional empathy, cognitive empathy, and compassionate empathy. Zaki says you can think of them as feeling it, thinking it, and being moved by it, respectively.
In a 2017 study set to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers designated 200 college students to help a fellow student who they said was experiencing a personal crisis. Participants read an essay that had been written by the other student that explained the student’s financial struggles and stress related to becoming the primary caregiver for their younger sibling after their mother died.
The participants were divided into three groups: a third were asked to think about how the other person felt (compassionate empathy), another third were asked to imagine themselves in the other person’s shoes (emotional empathy), and the final third were asked to be objective.
Measuring indicators such as hormone stress levels, blood pressure, and heart rate, researchers found that those in the emotional empathy category had significantly higher “fight-or-flight” responses as if they too were experiencing the same stress.
The interesting part, however, was that those in the compassionate empathy group — participants who might not share the same emotions as the struggling student but can still think of their stresses — had a positive response, which may have been a result of being able to offer advice to make the student’s life better.
Compassion is not the same thing as empathy, and it activates parts of the brain that deal with motivation and reward. Now, that’s not to say that you don’t need to be empathetic; emotional empathy is often a gateway to compassion. But you do not need to always “feel” what someone else is feeling.
Instead, try compassionate meditation. Envision someone you know who is in pain. Now, envision them finding relief from that suffering. Instead of dwelling on negative, painful emotions, you can push someone to focus on their health and happiness, thereby detaching yourself from the suffering.
According to Richard Davidson, a psychology and psychiatry professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, “For the most part, people don’t actually want you to feel their pain. What they want is your help and compassion.”
h/t Washington Post