Putting ourselves into another’s shoes might seem simple to some, but for others it’s no walk in the park. Here, we explore the two ends of the empathy scale
Possessing empathy is a significant human capability that allows us to connect with one another, as well as to recognise, understand, and share a range of emotions. But what happens when that empathy reaches extreme levels, or doesn’t exist at all?
In daily life, utilising our empathy refers to our ability to imagine a scenario, and react compassionately to what someone else might be going through. This could be when someone experiences a big life upheaval or upsetting event – such as the death of a loved one, divorce, or losing a job – or when a friend or family member shares their mental health struggles with you.
But what you may not be aware of, is that some people can experience extreme empathy, known as hyper-empathy, where they are very sensitive and highly tuned-in to others’ emotions. In contrast, others may experience empathy deficit disorder, which is where you lack the ability to understand what another person is going through, and in turn this can have repercussions on your relationships and connections with others.
Three types of empathy
To better understand the impact of empathy on our lives, it’s helpful to recognise that it can be categorised into three types:
This refers to the capacity to place yourself in another person’s shoes. You can understand and relate to their emotions, alongside understanding their perspective, and reactions to a certain situation. In possessing this ability, it allows us to respond in an appropriate, considerate way.
Also known as emotional empathy, this applies when you emotionally share the feelings another person is experiencing. You can be affected by another’s emotions and, in doing so, effectively become one with their emotions.
This incorporates both cognitive and affective empathy by using these two responses to make you want to take action, and so relieve the other person of their suffering.
What is hyper-empathy syndrome?
Hyper-empathy is the innate ability to be completely connected and in-tune with another’s emotions and, subsequently, on high alert towards negative feelings.
In psychotherapist Imi Lo’s article ‘The gift inside borderline personality disorder (BPD)’ pubished on Counselling Directory, she notes that individuals with borderline personality disorder often associate with high or hyper-empathy.
“Despite BPD being referred to as a ‘personality disorder’, it is not a character flaw, but is best understood as a limitation in a person’s capacity to regulate emotions. This means that the person with BPD often experiences emotions as rapidly changing, or spiralling out of control. These symptoms go alongside impulsive self-soothing behaviours, and a chronic sense of internal hollowness.
“Although the link between BPD and empathy remains controversial, many people with BPD identify with the traits of being an ‘empath’ or being hyper-empathic,” says Imi.
Because individuals with BPD can associate with hyper-empathy, they are also likely to experience some form of emotional or empathic distress. A study published in the journal Psychiatry Research in 2015 confirmed this, noting that while there are certainly advantages to empathic abilities, our human bias towards emotional negativity could “carry a risk for empathic distress”.
What is empathy deficit disorder?
On the other end of the scale, lacking the ability to feel, understand, and resonate with another’s feelings is categorised by empathy deficit disorder (EDD). This can result in difficulty forming and maintaining relationships, for both the individual who lacks empathy, and potential friends and loved ones. EDD is the term most often used in the UK, yet it’s important to recognise and respect personal preferences around terms individuals may want to use.
Those experiencing EDD may find they have more personal conflicts, breakdowns in communications, or sometimes polarising opinions. This can leave a person feeling isolated, as they struggle to connect and have meaningful relationships with others, due to being focused on their own thoughts and feelings, and prioritising them above those around them.
Depending on the cause of empathy deficit disorder, the condition may affect a particular one of the three types of empathy, or it may affect all of them. In general, though, affective empathy – the ability to share another’s feelings – is often impacted more.
The disorder can be prevalent in people on the autism spectrum, as well as certain types of mental health conditions, such as narcissistic and antisocial personality disorders, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorders.
Symptoms of empathy deficit disorder
An individual with EDD may exhibit the following behaviours:
- Struggle to make new friends
- Difficulty making emotional connections
- Quick to criticise or dismiss individuals
- Struggle to show appreciation
- Has high levels of expectations in matters regarding themselves
- Focus on themselves and struggles to listen to others
- Lack of understanding that others who feel hurt aren’t the cause of their own pain
How can you manage empathy deficit disorder?
The feelings and behaviours associated with personality disorders can be difficult to live with, and everyone deserves understanding and support.
While the solution to managing EDD can depend on the cause behind the condition, for the most part it requires self-reflection. It’s important for an individual to recognise for themselves that they have EDD, and choose if, and when, to try treatment on their own terms. Mind-training exercises and mindfulness practice can be useful tools for that next step.
One exercise you could explore is to try to place yourself into the mind of someone you have previously struggled to empathise with. Imagine you are that person, and think about all the things that make them a whole being – hopes and dreams, times of hardship, people who love them. Finding things you have in common can help to breach that gap in your viewpoints, so you can better understand where they are coming from.
Another option is counselling, which can be an effective form of support to manage EDD, and any underlying conditions, in a non-judgemental space.
For more infomation on empathy deficit disorder, or to connect with a counsellor, visit www.counselling-directory.org.uk