Empathy comes in various forms, each with its challenges. Affective empathy involves deeply feeling others’ emotions, which can lead to overwhelming feelings, anxiety, or emotional fatigue.
This may raise questions about the value of empathy. However, it’s important to understand that empathy is crucial and shouldn’t be abandoned. Instead, we must set clear boundaries to maintain a healthy approach to empathy.
The Different Types of Empathy
One common issue is the confusion between different types of empathy. Affective empathy means experiencing someone else’s feelings and emotions, whereas cognitive empathy involves listening and understanding others’ feelings and beliefs without necessarily sharing those emotions or beliefs.
When practicing affective or cognitive empathy, it’s beneficial to keep your emotions separate from those of the person you’re empathizing with, allowing them space to express and be understood.
If you inadvertently take on their emotions as your own, your efforts to empathize can become counterproductive. In such cases, the focus may shift to relieving your distress, hindering the original aim of providing support.
Understanding the distinction between affective and cognitive empathy is crucial when considering the vast number of people and situations that evoke empathy.
While everyone deserves empathy, it’s important to recognize that our capacity for affective empathy is limited when we deeply feel others’ emotions. It’s neither feasible nor healthy to fully engage affectively with every individual or situation we encounter or hear about in the news.
On the other hand, we have a much greater capacity for cognitive empathy, which involves understanding and acknowledging others’ feelings and perspectives without necessarily experiencing those emotions ourselves.
Capacity and the Practice of Empathy
Awareness of these different capacities is vital in establishing healthy boundaries in our empathy practice. Recognizing that we can cognitively empathize with many, but our ability to affectively empathize is naturally limited, helps us avoid emotional burnout.
With this understanding, we can now explore how to effectively establish and maintain these boundaries in our empathy practice, ensuring that we engage empathetically in these four sustainable and balanced ways:
1. Think of Empathy as a Skill
We often associate empathy only with feeling. What happens if, instead, you consciously think of empathy as a skill—a muscle to be developed? This can be especially helpful for those in a helping profession requiring continual heavy emotional engagement.
If you think about and employ cognitive empathy in the way you do other skills like active listening or constructive feedback, what might that look like for you?
2. Believe in the Ability of Others
While we sometimes misinterpret empathy to mean solely taking on another person’s feelings and emotions, it can also be misinterpreted as the need “to fix” a situation for another. When someone simply asks us for understanding, we must limit ourselves to that.
In doing so, we respect their boundaries and ability to care for themselves and adjust their circumstances as needed. We are not saviors, and most people don’t need saving.
3. Establish Your Circle of Control
The first step in my empathy journey was paying attention to the opportunities to offer empathy throughout my day. It was not long before I became overwhelmed by trying to do the impossible. But through mentors and my practice, I learned that just because I couldn’t help everyone didn’t mean I couldn’t help someone. While there are many things I am concerned about, there are far fewer things that are within my personal circle of control.
When I find myself becoming overwhelmed, I write down the concerns that are swirling in my mind and put them into two distinct categories. First, I list my circle of concerns, which could be anything from a friend experiencing health issues to global warming.
Then, within that list, I break out what circumstances I can exert some level of control. I can control my schedule and make time to be with my friends. I can’t control global warming, but I can do my part, like driving an electric car and reducing, reusing, and recycling as much as possible. I could even decide to advocate for more intense regulations.
Acknowledging my concerns and identifying how/if I have control over them greatly reduces my stress and enables me to act with purpose rather than throw up my hands and give up.
4. Celebrate the Wins
As with any skill we attempt to develop, there will be days we fail at our empathy practice and days we just can’t seem to get it quite right. That’s okay. While it’s important to recognize when we fall short and work to do better, I would argue that it is more important to acknowledge when we get it right and build on the momentum of those moments.
The practice of empathy benefits the person receiving it, but it also benefits you—celebrate those benefits!