Empathy is multidimensional – it’s a dynamic, evolving process, not a human trait. From empathy comes the ability to hold dear the feelings and thoughts of others. And if your empathy skills are highly-evolved you won’t confuse the psychological boundaries. You won’t be taking responsibility for another person’s intentions or feelings. This distinction is critical. Empathy is respectfully allowing the other person to take responsibility for his or her own life. (In AA or other 12-step programs, the ability to do this is called detachment.)
Because most people register EmD-4 on the scale, (more about the Empathy Dysfunction Scale in an upcoming blog post) they can often confuse these boundaries and take on too much for themselves. They energetically internalize the feelings and pain of others — and often have trouble distinguishing someone else’s discomfort from our own.
A new study shows that how we arrive at the empathy – our perspective – is as important as being empathetic. Researchers found that there are two routes we take to achieving empathy.
One approach observes and infers how someone feels – the imagine-other perspective-taking (IOPT).
The second approach is putting yourself in someone’s shoes – the imagine-self perspective-taking (ISPT).
How do these empathy perspectives differ?
You can acknowledge another person’s feelings without it affecting you deeply. That’s the IOPT perspective.
The ISPT ups the ante by actually taking on the emotions you see in the other person. They’re sad and you feel sad. The researchers in this study found that:
“When we are feeling threatened or anxious, some peripheral blood vessels constrict, making it harder for the heart to pump blood through the body, and people who engaged in ISPT had greater levels of this threat response compared to people who engaged in IOPT.”
It’s important to learn how to continue to be empathetic without that empathy creating a burden. If you don’t, you’ll burn out or at the least shy away from helping others, because it’s just too painful.
Dr. Poulin, one of the co-authors of the above study, suggests, “Rather than saying to a child, ‘How would you feel if that were done to you?’ maybe we should be saying, ‘Think about how that person is feeling,’”
My new book, When Empathy Fails – How to stop those hell-bent on destroying you sheds a great deal of light on how you can protect yourself and still be a highly empathetic person. My readers get a sneak preview…download a free chapter even before it’s available for sale. After reading it, I’d love to hear feedback over on my Facebook page.