Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing. It is placing oneself in another’s position. This is a desirable trait in that it causes people to help others in need. It improves relationships. It can reduce feelings of bigotry, racism, sexism, and all other types of intolerance. Positive empathy improves health. But is there a down side?
Individuals differ in their ability to feel empathy. Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen describes an empathy scale from zero (having no empathy at all) to six (an unstoppable state of empathy for others). Empathy comes at a cost to people at the high end of the spectrum. They are more prone to suffer depression and anxiety. Compassionate helping is good for you and for others. But taken too far, it can be destructive.
I know of a woman who is generous, thoughtful and kind. She has strong empathy skills, particularly toward children and animals. She is attuned to pain and discomfort to a degree that is often debilitating. If she sees an injured animal, she is likely to have a panic attack. Her empathy often causes emotional fatigue and tearfulness. This high sensitivity to others causes her to restrict her viewing of TV shows and movies that may have disturbing content. In short, it negatively impacts her quality of life.
Females tend to be more empathic than males. Women are better at recognizing facial effects and emotions in general. Research suggests that empathy is also partly genetically determined. Empathy is also correlated with high levels of oxytocin, a chemical in your body that acts as a neurotransmitter, or messenger between brain cells. A study by Paul Zak, neuroeconomist, demonstrated that people are more generous and more trusting when given doses of oxytocin.
Is empathy learned? Yes. One study found that parenting style contributes to the development of empathy. Parents who encourage the child to imagine the perspectives of others and teaching the child to reflect on their own feelings develops empathy.
Can you lose the ability to be empathic? Empathy can be disrupted due to trauma in the brain such as a stroke. For example, empathy is often impaired if a lesion or stroke occurs on the right side of the brain. And damage to the frontal lobe, which is responsible for emotional regulation, can impact a person’s capacity to experience empathy toward another person.
How empathic are you? Baron-Cohen developed a 60-item questionnaire, called the Empathy Quotient (EQ) designed to measure empathy in adults. You can take the questionnaire at https://psychology-tools.com/empathy-quotient.
As in most things in life, balance is key. If you find that you are empathic to your own detriment, you may benefit from counseling techniques designed to keep you grounded and focus on your own emotion regulation.