Some folks are able to watch the latest racist incident or school shooting unfold on the news late at night, roll over and go right to sleep. Yet, plenty of others can’t watch the news past dinnertime, for the pain and agony they witness seeps too deeply into their skin and all hope for sleep is lost.
The cause for taking the suffering of others so personally? The blessing and curse of empathy.
According to Dictionary.com, “empathy” is described as “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another.” Roman Krznaric, author of "Empathy: Why it Matters and How to Get It," describes the difference between empathy and sympathy: “Sympathy is feeling pity or sorry for someone, but without that extra step of grasping what that person is going through, or how they are experiencing the world,” he says.
Being an 'empath' versus being empathetic
There’s also a difference between feeling empathy for others and being an actual “empath.” Judith Orloff, MD, author of "The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People," identifies as an empath and describes them as “emotional sponges who are so sensitive, they tend to take on the stress of the world.”
The gift of feeling empathy, or being an empath, is that you care deeply for others and want to help, says Orloff. However, the downside of empathy is it can be mighty exhausting. “Empaths have an extremely sensitive, hyperreactive neurological system,” she explains. “We don’t have the same filters that other people do to block out stimulation. As a consequence, we absorb into our own bodies both the positive and stressful energies around us.”
Is empathy a skill or an ability you're born with?
Orloff says the ability to feel empathy is a little bit psychological tendency and a little bit neurological wiring. “It’s hypothesized that empaths may have hyperactive mirror neuron systems (the compassion neurons in the brain) and they work on overdrive feeling compassion,” she says.
According to Krznaric, your capacity for empathy is likely a question of nature and nurture. “Research suggests that about 50 percent of our empathic capacities are genetically inherited and the rest we can learn, because empathy is not simply a matter of wiring,” he explains, adding that adversity can also lend itself to the development of an empathetic nature. “I recently met a stand-up comic who has lived with cerebral palsy all her life. She has an amazing empathy with people who not only have physical disabilities, but who get marginalized by society in other ways,” he says.
Orloff also mentioned how adversity contributes to an empathetic nature: “A portion of empaths I’ve treated have experienced early trauma such as emotional or physical abuse, or they were raised by alcoholic, depressed or narcissistic parents, potentially wearing down the usual healthy defenses that a child with nurturing parents develops.”
Empathy can be a struggle in this society
David Sauvage, an empath performance artist who consults with corporations and entrepreneurs on building more empathetic cultures, says the basis of empathy is emotional self-awareness — which isn’t a skill fostered by today’s achievement-driven culture.
“The average person in our culture doesn’t have much empathy toward others because we prioritize everything other than emotional well-being,” he explains. “How often are boys told to ‘suck it up?’ How often are girls told they’re ‘acting crazy?’ How many times during the course of the day do we feel like we shouldn’t feel a certain way, so we hide our sadness only to feel shame around that sadness? There’s no healthy balance between the negation of people’s feelings and the acceptance of people’s feelings. The only way to cope is to disassociate,” explains Sauvage.