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OK, I have always thought and heard that people with autism experience less empathy than others. But I have recently started dating a guy with Asperger's. I know that is different than other autism spectrum disorders, but from what I gather from him, he certainly experiences lots of empathy but maybe expresses it a little differently. He might say something other people would consider inappropriate, but he can feel feelings, you know?

I think this is an interesting topic, and I would like to ask, what are the different types of empathy a person can experience? Do you think empathy is perhaps more diverse than most people realize (maybe because they're not as empathetic as they thought?). 

Please share your thoughts! :)

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Well, I think there are two basic kinds of empathy:

  • Cognitive empathy — where, when a person tells you they have broken their leg, to name an example, you think "that sucks badly" but don't necessarily feel anything personally. 
  • Affective empathy — where, when a person tells you something, you actually start feeling happy for them, or sad, or angry, yourself. 

I think it's often situational. Like, if you really love your sister and she tells you her boyfriend proposed, you are not just happy FOR her, but also genuinely happy yourself because you love your sister and really care about her wellbeing. Does that make sense?

There is also hyper empathy syndrome, in which affective empathy is taken to an extreme (involuntarily), and the person literally experiences emotions others are experiencing, right down to physical pain. 

I think different ways of expressing empathy doesn't mean that the empathy a person experiences is necessarily fundamentally different. 

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Yeah, cognitive empathy and affective empathy are the two kinds that are most often mentioned. There's actually a third type too though. That is compassionate empathy. With this kind of empathy, you do not only experience empathy but are also triggered to help make the person feel better. This is what moves people to give to charity, help friends with a new baby with meals, that kind of thing. For such a basic human instinct, it is quite surprising that compassionate empathy is not mentioned more often. 

It's interesting about the hyper empathy syndrome. Can you tell me more about that? How does diagnosing hyper empathy syndrome work?

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About hyper empathy disorder, I think there was only one documented case of that, ever? It involved a woman who had her temporal lobe removed, or something? It seems to me that this is a bit like people with traumatic brain injury or brain surgery who suddenly gain the ability to play the piano or who become math geniuses (acquired savant syndrome). When something shakes your brain up really heavily, it rewires itself and unusual things can happen. Some people start tasting colors, or wake up with a foreign accent, and others are suddenly hyper empathetic? It is fascinating, for sure, but I don't think it can happen to just anyone for no reason.

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Guest, that's very interesting what you say about your boyfriend. The idea that people with autism cannot experience empathy is a stereotype, and a very damaging one. Research actually shows the opposite, that people with autism can absolutely experience empathy and often even more of it than neurotypical people. It's the neurotypical people who lack the ability to look further and understand that not everyone expresses what they feel in the same manner... as evidenced by the fact that many people believe those on the spectrum do not feel empathy. 

There IS a condition called alexithymia, which makes it difficult for people to recognize emotions. Some people with autism have this, but a minority I think, and some people without autism have it as well. 

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Ooooh... interesting discussion!

It's definitely true that there are different styles of expressing empathy. I think it has a lot to do with emotional intelligence, and also with how you were raised. My dad died when I was young, to name a personal example, and my mom's way of dealing with it was to pretend she wasn't grieving and to just move on with life. That gave me the message that talking about emotions wasn't "done" as well - something I only consciously realized much later, in therapy. Perhaps because of that as well, I always struggle with knowing how to react appropriately to the news that someone has passed away. I can do generic "I'm sorry for your loss" stuff, but I struggle to really express my emotions. That doesn't mean I don't have them, but I wouldn't be surprised if someone else had that impression of me. 

It would be cool to go to a workshop about empathy and expressing it. 

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So, basically, there are:

1. Different types of empathy, cognitive and affective. 

2. Different levels of empathy you can experience, which may vary from day to day as well depending on how you are feeling. 

3. Different ways of expressing the empathy you feel towards other people. 

All of that can really create a veeeery broad range of different experiences that people have with empathy. Healthy empathy is empathy that allows you to connect with other human beings on a much deeper level, but that doesn't swallow you whole in that your own emotions are washed away by your feelings of empathy toward other people. That last bit would be hyper empathy syndrome, I am guessing?

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The different types of empathy have been covered already. 

What I'm wondering is whether it's empathy if you behave in a certain way because you're socially aware that that's expected of you, without feeling any sympathy. Does that count as cognitive empathy, because you know you are expected to behave with sympathy, or is it just social conditioning? People who don't feel much empathy can certainly fake it if they know how, so where's the line between social conditioning and cognitive empathy? Or if it falls under "don't be a douche" without actually feeling much, does that still count as empathy?

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I think it depends. Are you doing it for the other person, or for yourself?

If you're helping someone or expressing sympathy because you generally care for the person and understand the person needs something from you, I would see that as empathy, even if you don't deeply feel anything emotionally. Like, going to someone's birthday party because it matters to them but you really hate parties, perhaps? That would be empathy.

If you are doing it because you know that other people will perceive you as unkind and you don't like the thought of that, but you really couldn't give a rat's behind, that's probably not empathy.
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