People assume that people with high levels of empathy have a deep insight into how others’ are feeling, and can thus moderate both their own behaviour – and that of others – to give everyone the highest comfort levels possible.
But this isn’t always the case. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that, sometimes, empathy can actually cause the opposite result. People with high levels of empathy can become baffled by human behaviour, and unable to moderate their behaviour at all.
The way I see it, there are two kinds of empathy. There’s biological empathy, and social empathy.
Social empathy is the empathy we read about in magazines. It’s compassionate side of individuals that allows them to see the world from someone else’s perspective. Social empathy is usually an acquired skill. It needs to be developed over time, and it requires three keys things:
- Emotional Intelligence on the part of the person exercising the empathy (or hoping to do so);
- Compassion and a willingness to set aside judgements, prejudices and preconceptions;
- And keen observational skills.
These can be developed over time. Research into the field, as well as personal observation and anecdotal evidence all contribute to social empathy. It’s the kind of thing that become your life’s work, and if we all invested more time in developing our own social empathy, the world would be a safer and more peaceful place.
But there’s another kind of empathy. Biological empathy is sometimes mistaken for ESP or something out of the ordinary and, frankly, a little strange. A person with high levels of biological empathy feels the emotions of those around them. It doesn’t matter where they are or who they’re with – even complete strangers can give off very strong emotions. And those with high levels of biological empathy have no choice but to feel those emotions as if they were their own.
(And – notice: I didn’t say highly developed biological empathy, but rather, high levels of empathy. This kind of empathy seems to be something you’re born with. Any personal development in this area needs to focus on managing and understanding it, more than expanding it.)
There’s a lot to be said for biological empathy. if you can learn to separate your emotions from those around you, and teach yourself to read the cues that suggest whose feelings you might be feeling, you can develop your social empathy remarkably. It becomes possible to understand – deeply – what another person feels, whether their motivations for feeling a certain emotion seem logical or valid to you or not.
It certainly short cuts a lot of the explaining work that usually needs to form part of social empathy development. Over time, because you can feel what a person is feeling, you can begin to develop an understanding of why they feel it, too.
But biological empathy is not without its share of problems. For one thing, it’s exhausting. The people I know with high levels of biological empathy are usually pretty sensitive people themselves. That doesn’t mean they’re easily offended or they cry a lot. It just means that they come with a lot of feelings of their own. Strong feelings. And managing those can be hard enough without the burden of feeling everyone else’s feelings, too. without guidance – especially at first – it can be very difficult to figure out which feelings belong to you, and which belong to those around you. That makes every day an emotional roller coaster.
But it goes further than that. People lie. They lie to those around them, and they lie to themselves. They especially lie to children. So when a child has a high level of biological empathy, they may feel the emotions of the adults around them. But when they ask those adults if they’re okay, the adult will blithely assure them that all is well. Often, that adult hasn’t even admitted to themselves what they’re feeling. They may well believe themselves when they say everything’s okay, because they’ve spent so long denying their own emotions.
But the child (or biological empath) is not necessarily asking because they want to help, or because they’re nosy.
They’re asking because they need to figure out if the sudden welling up of anger or heart ache or frustration they just felt is theirs – and where it could have come from – or not.
When the person feeling the emotion doesn’t take ownership of that emotion, the person feeling it with them has no way of dealing with it. It becomes difficult to separate where his or her own self ends, and another person begins.
And it becomes very difficult to develop social empathy. You learn not to trust your emotions or instincts. Because you know what you’re feeling, but not why, and because the person you believe is actually feeling this sudden welling up of emotion refuses to clarify it for you (probably innocently), it becomes very hard to read people at all. Knowing how to behave around other people becomes an opaque minefield of confusion and overwhelm.
When you behave based on what someone says, rather than what their actions reveal, it’s possible to come across as callous and thoughtless. But when the words a person says are baffling to the biological empath, they may not have any other options.
Eventually, these gifted people, who could offer so much to the world, retreat into their own worlds to protect themselves. It’s a great loss to society.
We could benefit so much by being more honest and real – with each other and ourselves. And, since we can’t identify the biological empath by sight, if we all took steps to be more honest, they would naturally benefit as a happy side effect of the whole world becoming a better, safer space to be in.