Empathy is the ability to understand and feel what another person is experiencing. Empathy is a necessary and essential component of any relationship or social group. It is at the root of all pro-social behavior and compassionate action.
Empathy is distinct from the emotions of sympathy or pity. When a person feels sympathy, he essentially “feels sorry” for a person in trouble and views that person with a sense of separation. Empathy, on the other hand, is getting on the same level as the troubled person and, in a sense, feeling what that person is going through. Empathy is essentially minimizing the differences between oneself and another.
Empathy can be divided into two subtypes: affective (emotional) empathy and cognitive empathy. Affective empathy, also called emotional empathy, is the ability to react with an appropriate emotion in response to another person’s mental state. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand another person’s mental state without necessarily feeling it.
Affective empathy can be further divided into two categories: empathic concern and personal distress. Empathic concern refers to feeling compassion for others who are suffering, which often leads to reaching out to help the one in need. Personal distress refers to experiencing self-oriented feelings of anxiety or pain in response to another person’s suffering. Personal distress may result in an egoistic reaction to another’s suffering, rather than a helpful reaction. For example, personal distress might cause someone who witnesses a car accident to withdrawal from the scene, rather than help. On the other hand, a person who feels empathic concern will stay on the scene and help.
Certain mental disorders may affect one’s ability to experience affective or cognitive empathy. People with psychopathy or narcissism, for example, tend to experience cognitive empathy but have major deficits in affective empathy. In contrast, those with bipolar disorder tend to have more trouble with cognitive empathy. People with schizophrenia or autism may have deficits in both types of empathy.
Example: After suffering through several rounds of chemotherapy and finally beating cancer, Roxanne went back to school to be an oncology nurse, so she could help and support others who suffer from this disease.