Empathy has long been researched as one of the quintessential elements of Emotional Intelligence. But there’s a downside to having too much empathy and it can lead to burnout quickly.
This is a topic I’m passionate about because empathy is so integral to leadership, being compassionate and connecting with the people you love and work with.
The Basics: Definition of Empathy
Clinically, empathy is “the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.”
According to Brené Brown who focuses on elements of vulnerability, “Empathy is communicating that incredible healing message of ‘You’re not alone.‘”
Differentiate: Empathy vs Sympathy
Empathy is often confused with sympathy. Sympathy is a feeling of pity or sorrow. In Kate Thieda’s article in Psychology Today, she discusses Brene Brown’s differentiation of empathy from sympathy using four attributes originally discussed by Theresa Wiseman:
To be able to see the world as others see it (AKA: putting our own “stuff” aside)
To be nonjudgmental (judgement of another person’s situation discounts the experience)
To understand another person’s feelings
To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings ( rather than saying, “At least you…” or “It could be worse”, try “I’ve been there, and that really hurts” or “that sounds difficult, tell me more…”
Types Of Empathy
Not all empathy looks and feels the same, just like not all sadness or happiness is the same. Empathy is important and the type of empathy that you express or experience matters as well.
The three types of empathy that psychologists have defined are: Cognitive, Emotional, and Compassionate.
Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand how a person feels and what they might be thinking. Cognitive empathy makes us better communicators because it helps us relay information in a way that best reaches the other person.
Cognitive Empathy is about thought as much as emotion. It is defined by knowing, understanding, or comprehending on an intellectual level. As most of us know, to understand sadness is not the same thing as feeling sad.
Emotional empathy (also known as affective empathy) is the ability to share the feelings of another person. Some have described it as “your pain in my heart.” This type of empathy helps you build emotional connections with others.
Just like it sounds, emotional empathy involves directly feeling the emotions that another person is feeling. You’ve probably heard of the term “empath,” meaning a person with the ability to fully take on the emotional and mental state of another.
Compassionate empathy (also known as empathic concern) allows us to understand the thoughts and feelings of others without taking them on as our own. When we take on the emotions of someone else, it can blur the lines between us and the other person.
When your employee or loved one comes to you with a problem, you want to understand why they are upset. You then also want to provide comfort by sharing in their emotional experience and even helping the reintegration and healing.
Compassionate Empathy is taking the middle ground and using your emotional intelligence to effectively respond to the situation with loving detachment.
Empathy, Burnout and The Ideal
Cognitive, Emotional, and Compassionate empathy all manifest in different ways. Reflecting on your own experiences at home, at the office, or with friends and family, it won’t take long for you to notice the different types in your own life.
Cognitive Empathy may be fitting for the workplace, monetary negotiations, or surgeon’s offices; Emotional Empathy may be the first response with children and for our loved ones.
Often relationships at work can become breeding grounds for affective empathy. We can become in tune with the emotions of someone else, at the same intensity and without boundary. As time progresses, it becomes easier to pick up on the negative emotions of others and harder to regulate our own.
It’s common to feel the stress of those around us and to emotionally connect to the issues and situations of our coworkers. However when we mimic the emotions of someone else, our boundaries begin to blur.
When this type of empathy occurs on a continuous basis, we become emotionally compromised where exhaustion and burnout are often the result.
Burnout looks like:
- Feeling sadness or anxiety
- Isolation from others
- Receives unusual amount of complaints from others
- Emotional overload or numbness
- Voices excessive complaints about work functions
- Experiencing constant overwhelm
- Difficulty concentrating
- Mentally and physically tired
The majority of the time, Compassionate Empathy is ideal. Compassionate Empathy strikes a powerful balance of these two. In fact, it could even be used today for your teen doing hours of schoolwork online and feeling overwhelmed during the school year or bored in the summer.
Without either becoming overwhelmed by emotions, or trying to fix things with logistics, compassionate empathy allows for us to understand and relate to the other person. In this way, compassionate empathy maintains the boundaries between us and the other person.
When we connect using compassionate empathy, we don’t get sucked in and take on the person’s burden or feeling. We balance mindfulness with compassionate caring and could be considered compassion when expressed genuinely.
How to Manage Empathy
1. Separate Other People’s Problems From Your Own
Setting these types of boundaries can be a healthy way to provide support to others while taking care of your own mental health. Remember, you are not required to take on the burdens of other people.
Create clear lines to separate yourself from others. You are not the other person and vice versa.
2. Prevent the Emotions of Others From Hijacking Your Body
Human brains are wired with mirror neurons that connect us to the emotions of others. This is what gives us the ability to empathize. However, we shouldn’t be feeling physically stressed or emotionally compromised when listening to a friend complain about something in their life.
To help prevent others emotions from hijacking our own, notice what feelings arise in you and then focus on relaxing your body. As your body begins to relax, try to let go of the emotion. Observe your reactions and then choose to let them go. These emotions are theirs, not yours.
3. Ensure reciprocity in your relationships
In some cases, certain people only seek you out to complain about their problems and may not allow you an equal opportunity to share your emotions. This is not a reciprocal relationship and could lead to empathy burnout.
Remember that a truly healthy relationship is “give and take.” When a relationship is one sided, only one side is getting their needs met. Setting boundaries upfront and communicating how you feel about this can help you resolve this issue.
Always try to protect yourself from empathy turning toxic by remembering to set boundaries. This protects you from allowing other people’s problems to trample your path to emotional regulation and inner peace.
When I think of empathy, I think of it in terms of balance. Go too far into another person’s psyche and you risk losing yourself. Avoid being authentically interested in the person’s experience, and you’re missing out on the human connection.
The truth is, not all situations are the same.
Not all relationships are the same.
Just like not all types of empathy are the same.
Avoiding empathy burnout takes emotional fitness and practice. The goal is to find that sweet spot where you can empathize effectively, whether navigating a workplace hurdle or comforting a loved one.
PS: If you’d like to connect to discuss any of the information included in this article, please book a time with me.
Katrina Murphy is a Professional Intuitive Mindset and Confidence Coach in Ontario, Canada, serving clients across Canada and internationally. Katrina helps professionals to change the relationship that they have with themselves so they can reconnect both in their relationships and at work. She’s been featured in various publications and is the creator of the Power-Passion-Purpose Framework.