I’ve always been called ‘too nice’ by those who know me best. I give everybody the benefit of the doubt, I feel inclined to help whoever I can, and I exhaust my emotions worrying about others. And while this may be considered a weakness to some, I look at it as a positive—I take pride in my ever-present empathy and compassion I have for people. Besides, being overly empathetic couldn’t possibly be such a bad thing…right? Well, it turns out this depends on how exactly you feel empathy, as there are actually three different dimensions to it: cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and compassionate empathy.

In cognitive empathy, you can understand and relate to how someone else may be thinking or feeling. Think back on one of your favorite shows, like Stranger Things, for example. In the first couple episodes, Will’s mom frantically tries to convince everybody that her son is still alive, even after a body is recovered from the lake. You could understand their hesitance in believing Joyce, and you could also understand her frustration when nobody would listen—this is an example of cognitive empathy.

Compassionate empathy is different: it’s more about the feeling than the thinking. You feel concerned for another’s wellbeing or disheartened by their suffering—but you maintain a healthy distance or detachment from the situation. For example, you’re driving to work and you pass a homeless man on the street. Your heart goes out to him and you wish you could help him, but you don’t necessarily invest all of your emotions into it.

Now, emotional empathy goes a little deeper than the previous two. This is where you actually put yourself in another’s shoes and are often overtaken by their emotions. Imagine: your friend has a significantly difficult year marked by the death of her mother, the loss of her job, and a painful split from her husband. Not only do you imagine how she’s feeling and feel concerned for her, but you experience all of the pain and suffering as well—which makes this empathetic perspective potentially harmful, according to a new study “Don’t walk in her shoes! Different forms of perspective taking affect stress physiology” that’s to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

The researchers behind this study evaluated 200 college students, after assigning them to act as an aid to what they were told was a struggling fellow student. Each subject was given a personal essay describing the student’s crises, which included financial struggles and imminent stress following his becoming a primary caretaker of a younger sibling upon the death of their mother. Then, equal portions of 200 students were asked to take a different empathetic approach: a third took the compassionate empathy approach, a third took the emotional empathy approach, and the remaining made up the control group whom were tasked with staying objective. The researchers then measured hormone stress levels, heart rates, and blood pressures of each participant.

Upon evaluation of these students, the team of researchers found that those tasked with taking the emotional empathy approach or putting themselves directly in the individual’s shoes had higher fight-or-flight responses, as if they were experiencing the very stresses themselves. And the group that was asked to take the compassion empathy approach? They actually showed a positive arousal response, as if they were hopeful to help the student’s unfortunate situation or taking on an accomplishable challenge.

So, while compassion is associated with motivation and reward, the other side of the coin emotional empathy can cause pain. “People assume that any kind of empathy is associated with positive health benefits and behaviors, but for the first time we have physical evidence that not all empathy is alike, that its positive or negative effects depend on the perspective you take,” explains lead researcher Anneke Buffone. Therefore, if you’re an overly sympathetic and empathetic person like myself, it may be effective to tune into your compassion instead of your emotional empathy, as the latter can cause severe stress and, in turn, lead to the development of serious health issues. This doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t embrace your sensitivity; it just reveals a better way to go about it, which takes your own wellbeing into account, as well as others’.

Source: The Washington Post
Original Research: “Don’t walk in her shoes! Different forms of perspective taking affect stress physiology”