Generally, we define empathy as the ability to sense emotions of others coupled with the ability to judge what someone else might be thinking and feeling. In common parlance, empathy is most often defined by the metaphors: ‘standing in someone else’s shoes’ or ‘seeing through someone else’s eyes’
Psychologically speaking, there are basically four kinds of empathy in humans, which are self-empathy, mirror (emotional) empathy, cognitive empathy and compassionate empathy as described below:
• Self empathy – Self-empathy is the act of giving ourselves empathy, listening to our own feelings and unmet needs with compassion and understanding. This does not make the problems go away, or magically make all our needs met. But it does help us to feel connected and centered within ourselves. It can also be a tool to express ourselves with more honesty. Though it doesn’t make problems go away, it makes it easier to endure them.
• Cognitive empathy – It means knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. It is very helpful in negotiations or motivating people. It has been found that people who possess good cognitive empathy (also called perspective taking) make good leaders or managers because they are able to move people to give their best efforts. But there can be a downside to this type of empathy. If people, falling within the “Dark Triad” – narcissists, Machiavellians and psychopaths – possess ample ability of cognitive empathy, they can exploit others to the extent of torturing them. Such people have no sympathy for their victims and expertly use their ability to calibrate their cruelty.
• Emotional empathy – It means feeling physically along with the other person as though their emotions are contagious. It makes one well-attuned to another’s emotional world, which is a plus in any of the wide range of callings. There is a downside attached to emotional empathy that occurs, when people lack the ability to manage their own emotions. This can be seen as psychological exhaustion leading to a burnout as commonly seen in professionals. The purposeful detachment cultivated by those in medical profession is a way to void burnout. But when the detachment leads to indifference, it can seriously hamper the professional care.
• Compassionate empathy – Also commonly referred to as empathic concern, this type of empathy not only means understanding a person’s predicament and feel with them but spontaneously move to help them, if needed. In fact, empathic concern is the vital ingredient of an empathic response in a given situation. It is the kind most required in people working as social volunteers.
Empathy – a basic trait –
Empathy is inherently present in humans to varying extents and, therefore, we are affected by another’s predicament differently. In fact, it is one of the basic traits of humans so much so that any one devoid of it strikes us as dangerous or mentally ill.
Females frequently score higher on standard tests of empathy, social sensitivity, and emotion recognition than do males.
Its inherence in humans can be established by the fact that how young children respond to the emotions of family members. Besides children, some household pets also express their worry, when the family members are in distress. The pets hover nearby and put their heads in their owners’ laps showing that even animals have empathy. Besides humans, many other species exhibit presence of empathy to a varying extent.
A compelling evidence for the presence of empathy in animals came from the following research. The researchers reported in 1964 in the American Journal of Psychiatry that rhesus monkeys refused to pull a chain that delivered food to themselves if doing so gave a shock to a companion. One monkey stopped pulling the chain for 12 days after witnessing another monkey receive a shock. Those primates were literally starving themselves in order to avoid causing hurt to other animals.
Role of empathy in life –
• Empathy plays great role in our life in almost every sphere. The skill of empathy, though we inherit it, can be cultivated, which plays a significant role in making us successful in those spheres. Role of empathy in the life of an individual is actually dependent on its conceptualization by the individual, which varies widely. Nevertheless, empathy acts to reflect what has been perceived and creates a supportive or confirming atmosphere.
• Empathy is a powerful communication skill that is actually underused by many. It allows one to understand thoughts and resultant feelings created by them in others. Empathy also makes one to respond to other’s feelings sympathetically so that they can win their trust, which promotes communication further. Our fear of failure, anger, and frustration suddenly drop away, allowing for a more meaningful dialogue and a deepening of relationships.
• Empathy is more than simple sympathy, which makes the individual understand others with compassion and sensitivity. That is why it is plays an important role in the workplace, where many people work together to achieve something of significance. It helps create deep respect for the co-workers, thereby fostering a harmonious atmosphere in the workplace.
• Similarly, empathy is helpful in our professional life because, besides facilitating communication, it makes us a sympathetic listener to our clients, whereby we are able to understand them better.
• Because empathy makes us able to communicate effectively and listen empathetically, we stand a better chance of making our personal and social relationships successful. In fact, empathy is capable of nurturing every kind of relationship we enter into or are in.
• As it is clear that empathy affects our life with far reaching ramifications, we should help our children to cultivate this trait so that they can become better human beings. Since empathy promotes pro-social behavior, it will help our children build close relationships, maintain friendships and develop better communities. Emotional intelligence has assumed great importance over the past twenty years as an instrument in developing an ability to work with our own and other’s emotions. One of the most important components of emotional intelligence skills is empathy.
Undoubtedly, empathy immensely affects our everyday life. This trait will come in handy in situations, where we find ourselves trapped, because it will make us understand other’s perspectives.
Though we are born with this trait, it happens to be underused by many. As empathy is one of the most important skills to be practiced for success in everyday life, we should encourage our children to cultivate it.