Monday, December 13, 2010

Empathy, what is it?

On the topic of Empathy...

What is Empathy?...

In an earlier article I say that I'm not really sure what empathy is and therefore I can't answer the question about whether or not I have the capacity to feel it.

On my research for the meaning of the word Empathy I came across an article that describes the difference between sympathy and empathy.

I meant to leave the following comment at the site, but decided I might as well follow up upon my own article instead and post it here. This is what I wrote:

I looked up this article because I recently found that what I thought of as empathy is what others think of as sympathy.

We often hear people say that empathy means to feel someone else's feelings. This seems absurd to me, we can never feel somebody else's emotions, it wouldn't be their emotions if we could, it would be ours.

The author of this article has made a good job on trying to clarify the distinction between the two. As I read it I think: Okay, now I understand. And yet, in the end I still feel a little confused. Where does sympathy end and empathy begin?

The question I am researching is the claim that some people cannot feel empathy. I am sometimes told I am one of them. But when I read this article I can think of many occasions where I've felt what you describe as empathy, only (perhaps) not in quite as many and quite the same kinds of situations as others would.

I am also still left with the question about how others would judge my capacity to empathize. And this kind of judgment seems to take place very much in a gray area of emotional differences people in between, for when do we feel enough empathy or empathize with the right kind of feelings to be considered capable of empathy?


Anonymous said...

I think the big difference is intuitively feeling empathy, versus relating with empathy.

Say your ten year old boy died. It crushed you, to see him die. It scarred you to some extent, but such is life. The feeling passes and life goes on. A lot of people would be stuck in a rut, but more than likely you could move on fairly fast.

Now your friend's child died. You can sort of, level with that experience. By definition, this could be considered empathy, no? As you know to some degree what they're going through. Not the full extent, but you can at least relate.

Relational empathy versus intuitive empathy... I'm not sure if this exists, or if I'm describing something else.

Also, I should note, in that example, you were very close to your child, being one of the very few people you've ever cared about.

Zhawq said...

"Say your ten year old boy died. It crushed you, to see him die."

But it didn't crush me, Notable, it didn't.

And yes, I did care very much for the one who died. But it didn't crush me. I don't know what else to say about it.
I had put all my effort and energy and attention into this little being, and suddenly it was all lost.

No laughing in the mornings, afternoons or evenings when I came back from my excursions. No 'stuff' that wasn't mine to trip over and watch out for lying around.

When you've lived like that for a couple of years and have based a lot of your happiness and satisfaction upon the amount of happiness and satisfaction you could put into this other being the feeling you get when they die is not being crushed. You get angry and frustrated!

And then you begin to think about the future, you move on - which is not to say that person will ever be forgotten. They won't, not ever!

I think I understand what you mean by 'rational' and 'intuition' Empathy. If I'm right, then the difference between the two is what most common people refer to as Sympathy versus Empathy.

Anonymous said...

I can only speak from the hypothetical, as I've not lost someone very close to me. I would suspect there would at the very least be some anger or rage that could linger for a while. Perhaps crush was too strong a word.

I think handling the emotional torrent from the partner would be more trying than the actual loss.

Zhawq said...

I think that people often use phrases such a 'being crushed' more or less out of habit.

Most people are eager to show that they are like other people, and they do so by expressing and saying what they hear others express and say in the same kinds of situations, and/or they express what they have learned is the accepted and expected 'right way to feel'.


Oh yes, anger was absolutely a present emotion and strong enough to seem like you could reach out and touch it (metaphorically speaking).

Luckily I am a basically positive and optimistic nature and it allows me to get over negative events faster than most. In this case it helped me a lot, and as long as I don't think too much about it, I'm fine. Otherwise I can get moody and feel the old anger again like I felt it then.

Andreas said...

I'd like to hear your thoughts on these. I read them, and was able to relate to them, though at the time, I suspected that I might have been an aspie (a very unconventional one).

I think the general desire to have an unspoken connection is the same, for all humans. Working to bond sucks.

According to research, Aspies don't read non-verbal cues, making them not understand human behaviour. I thought that described me, but now it makes more sense that I don't feel the same emotions and desires, which leaves a similar result. I can read people, but it can be hard to take all their feelings seriously, because I don't have those same feelings to validate what I am seeing.

Zhawq said...

Hello Andreas,

Recently I've heard about the corresponding 'likenesses' between people with Asperger's and Psychopaths - or perhaps more correctly Sociopaths (for as far as we see them as a more socialized and less violently prone version of psychopathy).

It's a very interesting concept and I'm glad you bring it up because I'd like to look more into it too.

I'll take a look at the websites you link to and come back with what I think on the matter.

Anonymous said...

I think this may help:

Anonymous said...

thank you for the last link, quite helpful.

Three types of empathy,
cognitive empathy-Yes, much higher than average
emotional empathy - never in my life
compassionate empathy -yes and no -
yes but it still cognitive empathy with it, ie intellectual, rather than feeling as said in article, and quite selective as to who this would be extended towards usually. But being discriminatory is normal for everyone, we all have choice in the matter.

I think this is what makes me/us good in crisis situations, we understand the plight and spontaneously move to help. But it is an intellectual, or cognitive empathy, which allows us to remain cool headed.

I do seem to be completely deficient in emotional empathy, but that doesn't surprise me. My feelings are MY feelings, and I don't think they are deficient at all.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm new on your blog.
I'm not a sociopath, but an empath.
The ability to 'feel someone other's feeling' doesn't mean we feel them axactly, but we feel them to a certain extent. For example. If someone breaks his legs and experiences great pain, empaths think; 'Ouch, that must really hurt!'
Automatically, we imagine ourself being hurt the same way, by falling, and breaking our legs.
We almost automaticcaly have a painful axpression on our face, because of the tought of pain

That's my definition of empathy.
I hope this made any sense to you

Katas said...

Something doesn't quite ring true to me in the article you linked.

"To an extent you... understand their feelings" as a (partial) description of empathy.

I can understand others' feelings very well and could probably describe pretty accurately how someone going through a trauma - that I haven't been through - feels. But I don't think that's empathy, at least not in my case.

For me, I can put conscious effort into understanding how another person feels by knowing how other humans react, having been around countless numbers of them for 24 years.

I can't think of any time I've understood another's emotions but actually felt the same way as them.

So is that a lack of affect or a lack of empathy...? Because I'm certainly not emotionless, far from it in fact.

Watcher said...

This is an interesting discussion with an interesting reading offered in one of the comments. Sometimes in our own searching it looks like we hit on some really juicy research projects. This is a very interesting blog.

Here are some of my thoughts. I have feelings or at least some feelings so I can put my self in another's shoes to know what they are feeling. That is cognitive empathy from what I understand.

I have learned to read people's expressions and body language to learn the emotions they are likely feeling, then to recall how it felt to feel that emotion. I rely on this method all the time. I have watched people in action who have predominantly affective empathy (the intuitive empathy mentioned). People who have that actually feel what others are feeling. That is how folks have described it to me. It looks instantaneous and they are behaving as if they are feeling it. I don't think they are faking it. People very strong in affective empathy seem to know exactly what to say to help the other person in an instant. I can say the right thing or miss the mark entirely for individuals, but know what to say to a group of people in an organization to keep them on track or to motivate them when something has thrown them for a loop. I respect the differences among all of us. I have my strengths and others have theirs.

From what I understand in my reading, most people have both types of empathy and rely on both. Some of us get cognitive empathy only and have to wing it. I have become very good at reading people even for sets of feelings I don't have. This helps in not causing further damage by some callous remark. So why would I care? Since I do have some feelings I can feel love. It is a pale version of what others can feel, yet it is there. It is out of love for others I choose to try to do no harm. I understand all people have hardship and some suffering or much suffering. I know what that feels like, so I just don't want to add to it. I make an effort. I believe that desire to do no harm fits compassionate empathy via a different mechanism than described in the article.

I have read in Buddhist literature that compassion causes people to want to help and if they cannot help to do no harm. I rely heavily on logical reasoning to fill in the gaps and come to the same conclusion. I do not feel the suffering of others. I just know what suffering feels like from my own experience of it in life.

Now there are compassionate people who feel helpless before the suffering of large numbers of people. They burn out quickly if they can't dial back those feelings or throw them on the back burner the way I do. The pastor in my church is going through something like that. He is devastated by it at times. I don't feel the same way. I can just let go without a struggle.

My circle of concern at one time was just me. I do love myself and take very good care of me LOL. Now my circle of concern extends to family and friends and that is an improvement. If there is nothing I can do, I can still just let go without becoming indifferent. It is an acceptance of sorts of my own limitations of being just one human being. Those are my thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit late to the party but oh well
From my own research and trying to figure myself out, I've found that I can understand how/why someone is feeling an emotion, to a certain extent.
Say I tell someone they're overweight, and they get upset. I don't understand why they're upset. They're insecure/I hurt their feelings, but do you not know you're fat? And if it bothers you why don't you fix it? I'm situations like these I fail to understand why they are "letting" it upset them. I can even find humour in the fact that it may hurt them, therefore purposely calling them overweight to get the negative reaction.
Someone breaks their leg? I understand why they're upset, breaking your leg hurts, I know what physical pain feels like. Although I still wouldn't call that empathy, because I still don't care that they broke their leg? I just understand that it would've hurt them. Even to the point where complaining about it will just irritate me. I know you're in pain, the broken leg makes that obvious, complaining about it achieves nothing.
I have had people close to me die and I felt anger and frustration that they could no longer give me what I wanted from them. Even if what they were giving me was emotional I can just get it somewhere else? That partnered with "the feeling of nothing" the shrug it off like it's nothing and that's just life feeling.

So I'm still not sure on the definition of empathy, but I myself feel not too much of a problem in understanding why an emotion is present and I can detect most changes in emotions when speaking to me. I just seem to lack the ability to calling care about their emotions or understand being upset over something that is inevitable (pet dying, pain that will eventually go away ect.)