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Empathy, compassion, distress, quarantine, empathic distress

Empathy, Compassion, Empathic Distress Warning

These are scary times for our physical and economic security. I get it. Empathy and compassion are important, however, during quarantine, it’s important not to go into empathic distress.

There are two kinds of empathy, which includes cognitive empathy and affective empathy. Let’s find out the difference.

Cognitive empathy

Cognitive empathy involves consciously trying to take on another person’s perspective. One tries to understand how they are feeling or thinking and putting yourself in another person’s shoes. You will accurately identify how another person may feel. Cognitive empathy is okay. It’s very good to do and it helps to solve disputes. You take a moment to say, If I were him or if I were her, I can see how this would look and feel. So, that is very good.

Affective empathy

Affective empathy is emotional empathy – It has to do with feeling the other person’s feelings. Empathy has some very positive outcomes, which includes romantic relationship satisfaction and trust between patients and physicians. The lack of any kind of emotional empathy results in bullying, criminality, and sociopathy.

Empathy responses and identification

Neuroscientist researchers have found that there are greater vicarious and empathetic responses from people to whom they feel identified, i.e. If you are an American, you would get more upset over a plane crash that involves Americans vs other ethnic groups.

The brain works with association. The closer the association we have to someone in distress, ethnicity, geography, your group, your family, and the more upset you will be about a situation. The closer you will be to feeling the feelings that they probably feel.

The researchers found greater brain activation in association with those similar to us with empathy, which is on the left front part of your head. When researchers viewed members of the same sports team, they found that when an athlete on your team falls down and breaks an ankle, you are beside yourself. If someone on the other team falls down and breaks an ankle, you say, “Oh geez, that’s terrible.” It does not have the same emotional impact on you.

Empathic distress

The problem with too much emotional empathy is that it can turn into empathic distress, which leads to the desire to withdraw from the situation to protect oneself from too many negative emotions and being too upset. When we go into empathic distress, we withdraw.

Clients will say someone has died or I was in the hospital, whatever, and my friends, sister, or brother never called me. It is awful that they never reached out. They may not have reached out because they are protecting themselves from feeling bad. They can feel what you are feeling, and they can’t cope. So that person withdraws entirely from the situation at hand.

This can happen in romantic relationships too. Your boyfriend is struggling with a mother who is an alcoholic. You overly identify with how horrible this would be for you and you then withdraw. You have gone into empathic distress. Your boyfriend needs compassion and not empathic distress from you.

If you had compassion for him, you would be there to work with him on how to cope with an alcoholic parent. You wouldn’t cut him off and not discuss it, nor would you just break it off with him. Compassion is vitally important to a romantic relationship. In any long-term relationship, your relationship will be up against empathic distress, which will cause you to withdraw. Flip it to compassion, and you will have a markedly different outcome.

Coping with empathy overdrive

People who stay in that empathic distress mode get depressed, get anxious, and develop lots of physical and mental problems because we overwhelm our system. You cannot stay in that physical mode of distress. Speaking to others whether it be a therapist or friend, will help you uncover some compassion for another human being.

I particularly have a problem when something is unfair. I have experienced that in my own life several times. When I am presented with something that is unfair, I get emotionally overwhelmed, which is called empathic overdrive.

I have walked out of certain movies because of empathic overdrive. I had to walk out of Sophie’s Choice. In the film during the Holocaust, Meryl Streep had to pick which child of hers would live or die. I over-identified with the film (having to choose which child of mine would live or die is the most horrible thing to be confronted with as a mother) and I had to walk out of it. I could feel the feeling. I call it excessive empathy. I felt how she felt. The empathic distress was too much and I walked out.


Let’s go to compassion. If you can’t regulate the emotions of empathy, you will not be able to keep the emotional distance that you need in order to help someone who is in pain, i.e. surgeon operating on a little child.

There needs to be some function that inhibits or facilitates in the empathic response to allow the appropriate functioning in order to help those in a stressful situation. As a therapist, I need to have the emotional regulative network working well in order for me to help my clients.

When you feel compassion, it is on the other side of empathic distress. When someone feels compassionate, the feeling is focused on others. It is positive and prevents burnout. Compassion involves feelings of warmth, sustenance and caring for another human being who is suffering. In other words, you are helping and not absorbing.

Turning empathic distress into compassion

You are helping them find solutions to deal with it. A mother comes to me and has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. She wants to know how she could go about breaking the news to her husband and children. I wish I had some sort of magical power to take it away. It is very unfair. She should not be terminal.

I need to manage the empathic distress that I am feeling in order to help her or I would simply withdraw. If I were to feel what she feels, I wouldn’t be able to help her. So, I turn to compassion and together we work out a way to break the news to her husband and children.

During this Pandemic, there is a lot of fear and confusion. I think it is important that we all understand our humanity. Yes, we need to protect ourselves right now. But one of the main reasons to protect ourselves right now, is to protect others. If you protect yourself to avoid getting ill, you will not make anyone else ill. COVID-19 is where compassion and appropriate empathy is needed.

When we follow all the rules, regulations and suggestions it protects everyone else. When we go into empathic distress, we withdraw and don’t do what is needed.

While I look out my family room window, I see these beautiful bushes with bright orange flowers. The bushes are magnets for hummingbirds. As I watch these fairy-like birds flutter, I realize the simple pleasures of life. Love and nature are truly the exquisite treasures that God brought to all of us. I hope you absorb yourself in these treasures during this difficult time of quarantine.

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