It seems there could never be enough empathy and compassion in our world, but we are starting to discover that our capacity to share the emotions of others and take their perspective comes with a bit of a sting if we’re not careful.
If we get caught up on the misfortunes of others without understanding life’s processes, it can make us angry and unhappy. So where do we draw the line between tuning into empathy and tuning out perceived resolutions that will leave everybody empowered?
Fortunately, work on locating the root of empathy in the brain has also led to the discovery that with the right training, we might be able to tune how much we let others’ emotions affect us. This could allow us the best of both worlds – to care, without letting it consume us.
While culture might be socializing people into becoming more individualistic rather than empathic, research has uncovered the existence of “mirror neurons,” which react to emotions expressed by others and then reproduce them.
Understanding how others are feeling is a bonding mechanism that we are finding in an increasing number of animals. In humans, primatologist Frans de Waal of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, has suggested that being affected by another’s emotional state was the earliest step in our evolution as a collaborative species.
The very nature of being empathetic, involves looking past one’s own perspective in any given situation and understanding as best as possible the needs and experiences of another person. People who are empathetic tend to be more purpose driven and they intentionally succeed in their academics not because they are looking to make good grades, but in most subjects their goal is to understand the subject material and to utilize the knowledge as one of their ever increasing tools.
But the pitfalls of empathy will be apparent to anyone who has been in a room full of babies. If one starts crying, pretty soon, they’re all at it. Babies don’t understand the difference between their own emotions and those being felt by others, and so what one feels, they all feel.
Negative and positive emotions alike spread like a virus. As our sense of self develops, we learn to distinguish other people’s emotions from our own, although a variety of experiments, most recently studying our behaviour in online social networks, indicate we are not entirely free of the risk of emotional contagion.
Many studies have confirmed that this “empathy for pain” network exists, and that it doesn’t distinguish whether the pain you’re observing is physical or psychological. “The basic principle is the same,” says Tania Singer, who is now at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany.
What’s more, over the past few years it has become apparent that we don’t just catch pain from those we are intimate with. The first hints came from people in care-giving professions who often see the stress and pain of others, such as hospice staff, nurses, psychotherapists and paediatricians.
Since the early 1990s, a kind of empathy burnout has increasingly been documented – given names including “secondary traumatic stress” and “vicarious traumatisation”. Symptoms include lowered ability to feel empathy and sympathy, increased anger and anxiety, and more absenteeism. Various studies link these symptoms with an indifferent attitude to patients, depersonalisation and poorer care.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that empathy burnout can affect people frequently surrounded by other people’s pain, especially in hospice staff. If you’re looking for someone to empathize with your pain, talk to a woman in her 50s. Although most brains are hard-wired for empathy, the over-50 female crowd are able to express it more than others. There lies a subgroup of the population who also begin to experience empathic distress more than others.
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