As a psychotherapist, I am often asked how I can listen to people’s problems all day long? Isn’t it exhausting, or even worse, annoying? They might assume that I have limitless stores of empathy. While it is true that empathy, warmth, and genuineness in psychotherapy are critical for a good therapeutic relationship, it doesn’t stop there. An effective therapist utilizes tools and interventions to improve the client’s situation.
Can you have too much empathy? Ideally, therapists have a combination of empathy, sympathy and compassion. If I were to become as distraught as my client who suffers, therapy would not be effective. It is the therapist’s job to take action to prevent this pain in the future, rather than crying with them.
It is important to distinguish empathy, sympathy, and compassion. Empathy is feeling and sharing someone’s emotions. It is from the heart. It says “I feel your pain.” Sympathy is not feeling the other’s pain, but is having an intellectual understanding of it. It is from the head. Although overstated, it is like saying “it sucks to be you” but also includes a wish to see the other better off or happier. And compassion is the end goal of empathy. It is not simply feeling their pain, and understanding their pain, but acting to alleviate their pain. Compassion asks, “how can I help you?”
Are we born with empathy? Many researchers believe that one can learn to be empathic. Parents who encourage their children to imagine the perspectives of others, and teaching the child to reflect on their own feelings, and expressing warmth toward the child will develop empathy in the child. When I see a baby that responds to another baby, who is crying, with compassion, I know that their parent, or caretaker, has done a good job of nurturing the child.
We can also lose the capacity for empathy. Empathy can be disrupted from such things as a brain injury or stroke, particularly if it occurs on the right side of the brain.
We are more empathic toward people who are more similar to us. And it is more likely to occur between individuals whom we see more frequently. It is more difficult to empathize when there are differences between people including status, culture, religion, language, skin color, gender, and age.
Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen describes an empathy scale from 0 (having no empathy at all) to 6 (an unstoppable state of empathy for others). Those with zero empathy are psychopaths, sociopaths, or antisocial personality types. Those at a level of 6 will cry with others who are crying. This leads to burnout, and can be a burden to others. Others will then feel the need to attend to your pain.
Baron-Cohen developed a 60-item questionnaire, called the Empathy Quotient (EQ) designed to measure empathy in adults. I took the test and scored 49 out of 80. Higher scores indicate greater levels of empathy. That makes me just a bit higher than average. The truth for me is that at the end of the day as a psychotherapist, my clients take their problem with them. I leave the office to carry on with my own business, attending to my own problems.