The surprising downsides of empathy
While shared happiness is a very pleasant state, sharing someone's suffering, such as a loved one, can be very difficult.
Our brain activity in the regions associated with pain is partially mirrored. At worst, people feel "empathic distress," which leads to apathy, withdrawal, and feelings of helplessness. It can even be bad for your health.
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Although many people tend to confuse the notions of empathy and sympathy, these two are quite different.
While sympathy implies only the fact of feeling concerned about someone, empathy goes way beyond that and it might result in harming the person who is displaying and feeling it.
Empathy is the ability to share another person's emotions after having reached a good understanding of their suffering. There are three main types of empathy:
While empathy can make both you and the ones around feel better at times, there are also important dangers worth taking into account:
We all see suffering around us, whether it is the inhumane treatment of migrants or minority groups, or any depressing news of diseases, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed.
As the number of people needing help reaches epic proportions, it becomes less likely for us to initiate any help. This paradox is known as the compassion collapse and is a feeling of jadedness mixed with helplessness to the enormity of the situation.
Tragic stories and imagery make us sympathetic and wanting to help.
But a recent study reveals that the feeling of sympathy is not proportional to the help given by the person. A desire to help, or to contribute is more valuable for any tangible or fruitful result.
Feelings of sympathy do not necessarily lead to any action to end the suffering - they may cause a feeling of helplessness.
When people have the first-hand experience of pain and suffering, the desire to help arises from deep within, as they know the intricate details, and are motivated to help others who are in peril. This is called the Altruism born of suffering.
People who haven't experienced similar hardships themselves will find it hard to relate to others suffering. However, the desire to help can be invoked by showing them the effectiveness of the method, as well as the larger picture.
When a loving mother holds the newborn baby in her arms for the first time, she intuitively knows to care for the child. A relationship is formed, a bond created. The child will emerge in abilities, babbling, creating imaginary scenarios, the capacity to collaborate, feel pain, understand emotions, discuss differing positions, argue convictions, until the child grows up and can meet the mother in an adult relationship of empathy, intimacy, and perspective-taking.
The mother-infant dance will shape the child's affiliative bonds throughout life.
The neurobiology of affiliation is the new scientific field that describes the neural, endocrine, and behavioral systems sustaining our capacity to love. There are three factors in the neurobiology of bonding:
Oxytocin - a large molecule produced by neurons in the hypothalamus - is known for coordinating bonding, sociality, and group living. Oxytocin targets mainly the amygdala, a center for fear and vigilance, the hippocampus, and the striatum, a locus of motivation and reward.
Oxytocin is released through the central part of the neuron as well as its extensions, called dendrites. The dendrites increase oxytocin release whenever attachment memories are used and prime us for a lifetime. Early attachment memories help us move without fear. It imprints the infant's brain with distinct social patterns.