• Empathy helps us understand the feelings of others

  • Too much or too little empathy can both bring different problems in relationships

  • Sonia Cerqueira explores the different types of empathy and how we can achieve healthy levels of empathy for others

What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to feel, understand and respond to others' emotions in a way that supports others, while being able to distance oneself from them to avoid finding oneself in distress and suffering. 

Empathy requires self-awareness and the ability to put one's own world aside to come to understand the emotional world of the other. According to the latest studies in cognitive science and neuroscience, we have all the brain and mental properties required to enable the knowledge of others, in the sense of the representation of his psychic life and therefore the adoption of the "point of view of others".

Empathy is broken down into three complementary skills:

1. Cognitive empathy or understanding of emotions

This is the ability to spot and understand the emotions of others. A good example is the psychotherapist who understands the client's emotions rationally, but does not necessarily share the client's emotions in a visceral sense.

2. Affective empathy or sharing of emotion

This is the ability to feel an appropriate emotion in response to that expressed by others. People with high affective empathy are those who strongly feel the suffering of others.

3. Emotional regulation

This refers to the ability to regulate one's emotional responses and to distinguish between the emotions of others and one's own. Emotional regulation requires a good knowledge of oneself, of one's thoughts, emotions and reactions.

Why do we feel empathy?

Numerous studies in social and developmental psychology indicate that empathy is an adaptation that favours the social behaviours on which the survival of the human species depends. The biology of evolution teaches us that specialised neurobiological mechanisms have evolved to enable humans to perceive, understand, predict and respond to the inner states of other individuals.

Research suggests that empathy offers many social and psychological benefits:

  • The person who receives empathy feels understood, less alone and therefore less vulnerable. More serene, he will be better able to mobilise his resources to find solutions. His level of anxiety will decrease.
  • The person expressing empathy feels useful and valued. His level of self-esteem and self-confidence will increase. The person will be able to establish a relationship of trust with others and his relationships will be more intimate and authentic.

Contrary to what one might think, understanding the negative emotions of others does not increase anxiety, but decrease it. If you understand why your partner is sad, you will feel better able to help and empowered. This feeling of being active will make you feel serene. If you do not understand what is happening to your partner, you will feel overwhelmed by the situation.

Understanding the feelings of the other person reduces the risk of aggressive behaviour in the relationship. If you understand that your colleague left the meeting in the middle of your presentation because he felt humiliated by a participant, you will not blame him for being unprofessional and will agree to work with him again.

If you are attentive to the feelings of your partner, you will not throw away her recently passed grandfather's old broken chair. You will avoid a drama by recognising that the chair represents for your partner something more than a piece of furniture that no longer fulfils its role. It is not a question here of reasoning, but of accepting the subjectivity of feelings. This chair does not represent much for you, but for your partner, it is the mean that will allow the child in her to mourn her grandfather.

If you manage to see things from your partner's point of view, who will feel understood, she will be in a better position to put herself in your place and make the necessary concessions for a balanced relationship.

Can we have too much or not enough empathy?

Empathy develops from an early age in contact with adults who take care of the child.

Adults respond to the needs of the child consistently, while setting limits that correspond to the rules of social and emotional life. While exploring its environment and its limits, the child learns to adapt to the constraints and needs expressed by others.

If the needs of others are poorly expressed, if no limits are fixed on the wishes of the child, it will become difficult for him to understand the universe of others and thus to put himself in their place.

As adults, some people fail to understand or respond appropriately to the needs of others. This results in professional or personal conflicts and ruptures in communication.

Their struggle to be empathic keeps them locked in a self-centred or uniquely objective and logical world, which blocks their access to the inner world of others and therefore to all kind of intimacy. Often, people who lack empathy towards others also deny themselves deep access to their own subjectivity and feelings.

On the other hand, in some people empathy comes naturally. They have no difficulty seeing things from the point of view of a friend or colleague. But pushed to an extreme level, empathy can become harmful.

Because of trauma or attachment issues, some children don't have a sense of sufficient inner security to deal with social and affective relationships in a calm manner. They live with the worry of not being loved and spend a lot of their energy on finding what would make them likeable. All their actions are then oriented in order to understand the needs of their parents and fulfil them.

These children are often anxious, developing a hyper vigilance that will allow them to study and understand finely the inner life of their parents.

A whole childhood is spent observing the parents in every detail to understand how to please them and hopefully, to be loved by them.

In adulthood, it is in this type of personality that one finds then the highest degree of empathy but also a high level of anxiety due to the fear of the abandonment, a lack of affirmation with loved ones and a tendency to develop low self-esteem.

Can we learn to be more empathetic?

Feeling the emotions of others helps us remember we are accountable for our actions and be respectful of others' feelings. We're a work in progress and it's never too late to learn how to “walk in others' shoes” in order to improve our relationships.

Here are some steps to help you develop your empathy:

  • Observe the gestures, the postures, the expressions, the vocabulary, the look, the way of expressing of the person.
  • Focus on the person and their frame of reference and what they are.
  • Put your frame of reference, your values and your story aside.
  • Do not judge the feelings of the other. Try to stop your critical self. Do not question the feelings expressed by the other and start from the idea that their feelings are valid and authentic.
  • Be attentive to your internal reactions, your emotions, your physical reactions and your thoughts.
  • Formulate what you think the person feels and how you feel in response.
  • Write your emotions down.

How can therapy help you regulate your empathy?

Empathy requires excellent knowledge of one's emotions and recognition of the existence of other reference systems. At the heart of empathy is curiosity: the humble and genuine desire to know and accept others with their differences. 

Becoming empathic means first of all wanting to know others and who they really are behind the facade they offer to protect themselves.

For some people it is difficult to be curious towards others often because they are not curious about themselves. They cannot recognise the emotions of others, because they themselves have not learned to identify and put words on their own emotions.

A psychotherapist can set up a treatment that will develop your curiosity for yourself. He will allow you to name and explore your emotions to better recognise them in others. The therapist will help you to see your own experiences from a different point of view in order to recognise and accept the existence of other frames of reference.

Finally, the therapist will be empathic towards you. Benefiting from empathic listening should engage you to replicate this empathy outside of the therapy room.

At the other end of the spectrum, too much empathy can cause distress, increase anxiety, and lower self-esteem. In some people, empathy is exacerbated by a fear of abandonment that can lead to sacrificing one's well being to the benefits of loved ones.

A therapist can help you explore the reasons for your fear of abandonment in order to gain control of your emotions and self-confidence. By regaining your self-esteem, you will be able to better protect yourself from the suffering of others while continuing to give them the empathic support they need.

The key to finding the level of empathy that will be appropriate is to develop safe balanced relationships where both of you feel known and understood without having to lie or be hurt.

The empathy of your therapist should give you the experience of a relationship where you can be yourself without being judged. In return, you will learn to be more fair to yourself.

If you feel judged by your therapist, tell him. He will explore with you the feelings associated for you to judgment. While gaining more understanding of what is happening in the therapy room between your therapist and you, you will find a way to establish  relationships where you feel fully accepted and free to be yourself.

Discovering who you are and accepting yourself will be the first step in making others want to know you authentically and accept you, with your strengths and weaknesses. 

I sincerely wish you the best of luck in that fulfilling journey.

Further reading

Meet the therapist: Sonia Cerqueira

What's the downside of empathy?

Why do we reject empathy?

How to find the right therapist

Self-care tips for empathetic people