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Three types of empathy

white knight
Community Champion
Community Champion

It's amazing when your own behaviour comes into question and someone suggests (in this case my wife) that I should discuss that with my psychologist next visit.


The picture is that my daughter and husband are about to move into their newly built home. The house was broken into and about $600 of belongings stolen. When she was telling us this on the phone I began to get upset along with some frustration. After the call ended and my wifes suggestion I googled "empathy for others" and found there was 3 types..... Cognitive, emotional and compassionate.


Cognitive empathy- the ability to feel what the other person is feeling. It is a healthy type of empathy


Emotional empathy- the ability to share the feelings of another person. It helps you build connections


Compassionate empathy- this goes beyond the other two in that you take action for the empathy you feel. 


This is interesting because my wife said "its our daughters problem, why are you feeling so upset?". Indeed, why was I feeling so deep about an issue that is their issue and easily affordable for them eg we dont have to even consider them financially. Their insurance has a $1000 excess so wasnt wise to claim.


The other aspect is "crowding" in that people might mention their problem but if your empathy is beyond normal and you always offer to assist, they could feel like ceasing sharing issues as they dont want the help. One offer is enough, two and they repeat their rejection but three and you have a friend that want to exit quickly.


Sensitivity, sorrow, sadness, dysthymia are all things that can make us extreme with our kindness. Best to develop some internal guidelines to reduce that extremity to not put your loved ones off.


Have you been extreme in your empathy?




9 Replies 9

Eagle Ray
Valued Contributor
Valued Contributor

Hi Tony,


I can answer a definite yes to your question in that I have been extreme in my empathy all of my life. In my case I think some of it came from being taught from a young age that I am supposed to take care of the needs of others and so I became very sensitised to others emotions and feelings from when I was very young. I also think it seems to have been just part of my core nature.


I know there are situations where I have tried a bit too hard to help and I have had to learn to recognise boundaries in terms of whether the other person really needs my help, much as you describe. However, what has happened to me the most is people who are needy and want someone else to take care of them turn to me because they sense I am empathetic and will be supportive and kind. But the result is I have spent years of my life supporting others through their life issues while not seeing my ow needs. There are some people who will take advantage of your goodwill as much as they possibly can and this can become exhausting if you don't establish boundaries and maintain them.


So even more critical in my case has been learning to put up a boundary around myself, not just recognise other people's boundaries. The boundary can still be permeable so I can let the right people in. But when it comes to some people who will actually become invasive of your life and space, I have had to set limits with those people. It's still a work in progress for me as to how to best do this and it is actually what I am going to discuss when I next see my psychologist.


I think some of us are highly sensitive people who can't help but feel for others. Even as a child I would cry watching movies or from something I saw on TV or even hearing a piece of music. I am still like that now. I have cried at videos I've watched on YouTube in the last couple of days that have depicted acts of kindness. I cried last night watching the TV show Alone when one of the contestants was really missing her family.


I think there is a plus side to this sensitivity as I feel like you get more out of life than if you don't feel and don't have empathy. It's like you are more connected to the meaning of life which to me is all about caring and connection. I think the important thing is that you remember to take care of yourself and not be so overtaken by empathy for others that you forget yourself or forego your own needs. But, as you say, there is also a need not to overstep the mark and try too hard to help others when they may really not need it or prefer to handle a situation themselves.


So I think it is wonderful to be empathetic and the important thing is to remember boundaries in the context of how to best express that empathy. I guess with your daughter it's a case of commiserating with her about what has occurred but not taking it on as something that is emotionally overwhelming and that you need to fix or solve. It is being able to care while recognising you are not responsible for making the situation better.


Sorry I just wrote so much. I've just thought a lot about this topic. Hope all is going well for you Tony.




Hi again and I'm well, hope you are also. You painted it perfectly.


A few examples:


My beautiful dad (dec 1992) would always say, always walk in others shoes. But that also meant giving way to every pedestrian regardless of where, allowing other drivers way when he had right of way, giving away updated items to families eg swimming pool when they were more financially secure and so forth. 


My one time therapist said to me " when are you going to stop saving the world"?.


For some strange reason those that over empathise are imo respected less. I wonder why. Perhaps they don't believe it's real kindness and consideration?


What I have adjusted to is social media in terms of this topic. It's common that the nastiness is so rampant it finds its way even in response to showing empathy. I now either ignore them or reply with a counter question eg "are you criticising kindness, how odd"?


Strange world



Dear Tony,


I have done those things you describe your Dad doing and I know you are so kind and always wanting to help too. On hot days if there was only one shady parking space available I would leave it for someone else thinking there might be an elderly person who needs that more than me. More recently I have finally learned to just park in the shady spot if it’s there and that in that instance I am trying too hard to save and take care of everybody.


I like your response on social media with the counter question. That is a good response. I’m not on social media so I’ve avoided that world but I know I’d find it challenging if I was in terms of how cruel people can be at times.


It made me think of a time I slowed and stopped my car for an elderly man pushing a shopping trolley across the road. He simply couldn’t move fast. The guy behind me went berserk with rage beeping his horn. I remember thinking what does he expect me to do, run the elderly man over? Was he rageful at me for stopping or at the elderly man for attempting to cross the road or both?


I’m trying to learn responses to when people are cruel, bullying etc. I have always been too nice to others even in the face of bullying. I like the way you find responses to challenge the other person back. Too often I’ve not even had a response and then I internalise the distressing, unpleasant energy from the other person. In the case of the driver beeping at me it is easier to just ignore and discard their behaviour. But in interpersonal relationships with people you know (whether family, work colleagues, friends etc) it can be a lot harder I find. I’ve realised I need to give an “in the moment” response to unkindness much like your counter question, whereas I usually just feel a mix of shock and hurt so I don’t even feel able to respond.


So I think it’s possible to maintain being a kind person but appropriately defend ourselves when necessary. At the same time there are occasions where we can be overly kind to others, trying too hard to make sure they’re ok when it isn’t our responsibility in certain instances to do so. It can be tricky learning that balance at times can’t it!


I also tend to give away things I no longer need to other people or the op shop. I get joy out of knowing someone else benefits and with the op shop a charity also benefits. But there are times I probably could have sold some things to make a bit of money which I actually needed.


All the best,


Responses are not hard to dream up, its the way you deliver them that you might need ideas.


In a thread at the bottom it depicts how to use your wits because, less words the highly impact. People can be so critical of others and when they are the classic response sometimes is - "and what would you do"?  If they have criticised but dont have an alternative, they are cactus- caught out!. On the basis that they cant advise just criticise.


Hypocrisy is another common one. Saw it on TV last night on MAFS when a woman previously caught out for having cheater on her "husband" was criticising another couple for meeting in private and beginning a relationship. So in essence they dont realise they are countering their own behaviour.


So- ask questions, use few words, use wit to make a great impact.





Thank you Tony. That is helpful to read. Wit is exactly what I need. I just feel lost and confused when people are rude and abusive in what they say, and also when they are more subtle but manipulative as well which I am learning to pick up more quickly when it's happening. I also learned as a child not to try to defend myself because it would make things much worse then. But I think standing tall and just calmly responding with wit as you describe is a good way to go. It is not a case of being cruel back to the person but as you say just pointing things out to them in terms the reality of how they have just conducted themselves, and they often don't have an answer when confronted with the truth of what they've just said. It is being grounded in yourself and knowing you are coming from a good and honest place. They cannot really get at you when you have that calm and inner centredness.




ER imo you are like myself that you have a lot of ability, logic and overall a successful caring human being but lack some areas that could be from missing out learning when young or inherited.


These inabilities are I've found, usually have simple remedies but nevertheless they are challenges.


We have a foster son now 21yo but as a 9yo he would eat with his fingers. It was a real challenge getting him to eat with utensils. Low functioning autism to him the utensils seemed pointless. 


Using wit is good for those that have the ability although I have issues not using it quick enough but overall it has improved my life. When my mother told me to break off with my GF (I was 27yo) "or I'll go away to the country side for 2 weeks"... my witty response was "I'll help you pack your suitcase". That response was actually from learning what emotional blackmail was and my anger at my choices being violated, but I had learned of the blackmail from a therapy group, I hadn't identified it myself. An example of growing up with that poor parenting. 


We built our current house 4 years ago ourselves. It's amazing how many visitors say "I would have done this or that" so my wit kicks in "why didn't you make those changes when you built your house"? Knowing full well they hadn't ever built a house!. Such people are insensitive to the huge workload and physical  hardship (at 64yo) in the build so rather than dwell on these comments for days after they leave I nip it in the bud there and then.


I do dwell so using wit in short comments has helped a lot.


Do you dwell over people's comments ER?



Hi Tony,


Yes I do dwell over other peoples’ comments. It’s often very subconscious the way it starts. Something triggers a memory of something cruel someone said to me or something manipulative they did to me. Because at the time I was kind of stunned and confused by their behaviour and went into a kind of freeze response, it’s like their hurtful behaviour has lodged in me and become stuck. When there is a memory trigger and I recall the incident my whole body reacts as if I am back in that incident again. This is often felt as an intense anger and distress that is trapped in me. I know this isn’t healthy as it is bad energy stuck in my system. I think if you use wit at the time you protect yourself and the bad feelings don’t get stuck inside of you.


This is exactly one of the topics I plan to discuss with my psychologist this Friday. Sometimes she does somatic exercises with me where I go back into an experience and get to do what I needed to do at the time to protect myself but wasn’t able to then. By somatically recreating the incident and allowing my nervous system to respond in the self-protective way it didn’t get to at the time, the distress in my system often then shifts and dissipates. We have processed a number of incidents this way including some major incidents of abuse. It’s actually unravelled and removed some major ptsd from particular events from my system. But what I am wanting to talk about with her this week are those micro-aggressions people do where they think it is ok to bully or manipulate you. Sometimes those ways are quite subtle yet still unkind and abusive.


So I do dwell but it happens very subconsciously and I’ll find myself suddenly feeling very angry. I’ll then go back over the past few minutes and realised something just triggered me, maybe something I read, saw, heard etc, that sent me into a memory spiral and then I’m suddenly feeling distress and anger.


The comments you had on the house you built reminds me of a relative who says things like “you haven’t cleaned your windows properly” or “you haven’t organised your kitchen properly”. She wanted to stay with me shortly after I moved here. I was feeling ambivalent about it and was still struggling from some recent trauma. I told her I still was sorting through boxes of things. She said she was coming anyway and sternly told me, “you should have organised that all by now, get your act together”. I thought I don’t want that rude person in my home and texted the next day to say I didn’t want a visitor at the moment. I’ve since largely avoided her and more and more I’ve removed such people from my life. I realise people have talked to me and treated me a certain way simply because they thought they could get away with it. They have also often treated me as a punching bag when they want to bully someone. I think wit is an excellent way of kind of shutting them up, setting a boundary and letting them know they can’t treat you that way. So I am going to practise learning wit like you Tony.


Many thanks as I think it will be very helpful for me to learn to respond with wit, especially in the moment to nip things in the bud.




Nipping things in the bud by using wit or confronting the abusers has excellent results by recovering early.


Dropping off relatives and friends as time goes on, if their abuse or abrasiveness cannot be tolerated is building that fortress of survival I posted a long time ago.




In particular new friends or emerging family members. A screening of individuals by using time as your friend and not jumping into their lives is a form of wisdom. My wife and I were rescuing a possum 12 months ago and a lady arrived and we all took it to a nearby vet. We struck up a friendship and as my wife is on the introverted side I encouraged her friendship with this lady. After 6 or so visits it turned out that we became her dumping point for work and church squabbles. I tried changing the topic to positive stories but in a matter of minutes back to the work disputes. It all became too much so we had to sever the relationship. Having your fortress enables you to screen better. In this case we would not have invited her to our home until we met her say 4 or 5 times in the shops where we might have discovered her obsession for her work environment.








This next one is about hanging onto experiences.




Gee, google picked up on the first line of that last one as a summary of what "crying over spilt milk means". lol


I've had many instances of dwelling but the worst was following a fight with a fellow airman in the RAAF when I was 20yo. I had apologised to him several times. 30 years later Facebook came along and of course I searched for him and found his page and he was living in Canada. I sent him another apology. He then blocked me. I only realised this was extreme behaviour when I passed the topic onto a friend. Guilt was my enemy.




My guilt was the result of a controlling mother that put me down at every opportunity.





Dear Tony,


Thank you again for your wise input. I agree about not jumping too quickly into certain friendships. I have done that too and very quickly become a dumping ground for the other person's problems. My best friend from high school was actually like this and it took me 30 years to finally fully wake up to it! For 30 years I listened to her complain bitterly about everyone and everything in her life. When I tried to offer possible solutions she was never interested, she just wanted someone to dump her complaining on. Looking back I was too empathetic and patient with her. It eventually got to me too much and I ended the friendship and removed that stress from my life.


Your story about your RAAF experience I think is something many of us who are sensitive can get caught in. Not only are we often the targets of others who might be exploitive because of our sensitivity and vulnerability, we also tend to feel horrendously guilty if we feel we have wronged someone else. I really understand what you say about your mother, as mine guilted me frequently and made me feel responsible for her emotional state. Hence I can still catch myself feeling responsible for others' emotional states even now, but I am beginning to unlearn that and recognise where the boundary is between myself and others.


I really appreciate your thoughts and input.