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Learn the differences between empathy and sympathy and find out about overempathizing or hyperempathy. Explore how empathy occurs and the different areas of the brain which are involved in the emotion.

Empathy is a multifaceted concept that's most commonly described as the capacity to relate to or share the emotions experienced by another. Before someone can demonstrate compassion or sympathy, a certain degree of empathy must first be experienced.

Many people will consider empathy to be an essential part of humanity, and you'll almost certainly have heard discussions about people who appear to lack this trait. They are seen as cold and uncaring. 

But, is it possible for someone to have too much empathy? What would that mean for a person's quality of life?

What are the differences between empathy and sympathy?

Empathy can refer to the ability to correctly identify how someone else must be feeling (cognitive empathy) or to feel what they are feeling — which would be affective empathy. Sympathy would be a state of mind of caring for the other person's wellbeing in the context of their current emotions and situation, whereas compassion would extend that concept to include a willingness to help. These concepts are closely related, but not one and the same. 

What are the different types of empathy a person can experience?

Medical researchers have identified two different types of empathy [1, 2]:

  • Affective empathy: Affective empathy refers to the sensations, emotions, and feelings we get when we respond to the emotions of another.  This type of empathy can include mirroring what that person is feeling or feeling stressed out when we detect another person’s anxiety or pain. Another way to describe this would be "catching" someone's emotions. 
  • Cognitive empathy:  Cognitive empathy is sometimes referred to as “perspective taking” or the ability to "place yourself in someone else's shoes", which means we have the ability to understand and relate to other people’s emotions.

What pathways in the brain are associated with empathy?

When a person perceives another individual is in pain or suffering, the neural pain circuits in the brain are affected. At the first response when viewing someone in pain, the brain begins the process of resonance and it spurs the empathetic response. Empathy activates the inferior parietal lobule and interior frontal gyrus. [3]

In order to experience empathy for someone else, a person must understand the context of the other individual’s experience, while still being able to keep it separate from their own. Self-other discrimination is the ability to know the difference between the source of the stimuli as originating from the self or from someone else. Self-other discrimination involves the following areas of the brain; inferior parietal cortex, extrastriate body area, ventral premotor cortex, the temporoparietal junction and posterior superior temporal sulcus. [4]

What is hyper empathy?

People with a high level of empathy often wind up helping others at the expense of their own needs, which can lead to a pattern of withdrawing when they are hurt or emotionally wounded. Many research studies suggest a person’s capacity for empathy comes from a specific set of neurons, labeled mirror neurons. [3]

In people with hyper empathy, a person will actually mirror the feelings and emotions of another person and feel things to the extreme.

With hyper empathy sometimes a person will even have a physical reaction to another’s distress or pain.

Both hyper empathy and an empathy deficit can cause personal and social challenges.

How is hyper empathy clinically defined?

Hyper empathy is not clearly defined in clinical terms. 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association offers information about the diagnostic criteria clinicians use to diagnose mental health disorders. According to the DSM, hyper empathy could be classified as a Personality Disorder NOS or not otherwise specified. This diagnosis may be given when someone has features of one or more personality disorders, but not to the point where that disorder could be diagnosed. "NOS" is a type of "catch-all" that allows people who defy currently available clinical criteria to still receive a diagnosis — and therewith, potentially the help they need.

According to the DSM, the particular category for this type of mental health disorder includes [5]:

  • The presence of more than one specific personality disorder which does not meet the full criteria for any one personality disorder, but together causes clinically significant distress.
  • This diagnosis can also be used when a medical clinician determines that a specific personality disorder in the classification fits.
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