What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to share someone else’s feelings or motivations and to understand their perspective.

There are two types: affective empathy and cognitive empathy.

Affective empathy is a purely emotional reaction that is instinctive and automatic. It can be thought of as mirroring another’s emotional state, both figuratively and literally as mirror neurons seem to be involved in this process. This is not to be confused with sympathy, which is an affective state of feeling sorrow or care for another person. Empathy involves a shared emotional experience, whereas sympathy does not.

Cognitive empathy, also referred to as perspective-taking, does not have an affective component but, rather, is a purely intellectual ability to recognize and understand the feelings of another in the context of that person’s perspective. Affective recognition, the ability to distinguish another’s emotions, for example, through interpretation of facial expressions, is a necessary component of cognitive empathy development.

Negative environmental factors can cause personal distress, an emotional state of anxiety, that then inhibits empathy. Personal distress is caused by over-exposure to emotionally triggering events. This can happen in youths who have experienced authoritarian or neglectful parenting and who have been exposed to emotional or physical violence. Adults can experience personal distress too, often through exposure to others’ distress, as is the case when those in helping professions experience burnout. Fortunately, the effects of these environmental stimuli can be remediated and the empathy response system can be repaired.