Empathic Concern: I Feel What Happens to You

Empathic concern is the component of empathy that predisposes us to help others. It is undoubtedly a great quality, but what consequences can a high empathic concern have? Here we tell you.

In general, most of us have an innate tendency to care about others that is favored by learning certain social skills. It is what we call empathy, which in turn is divided into three fields: cognitive empathy, affective empathy and empathic concern . What exactly does the latter consist of and how does it differ from the other two components?

Empathic concern is the tendency to feel compassion, concern, and care for others, especially when faced with difficulties. It is feeling what the other is feeling. By definition it is easy to associate it with professions whose work is based on dedication to others (although not exclusively). This explains why this quality is associated with problems such as compassion fatigue and burnout . Let's see why.

Empathy: what it is and what are its components

Empathy is a technical concept in origin, but it is already part of popular language. We are talking about a very complex quality that has allowed us to reach this level of social development.

Empathy could be defined as the ability to perceive or infer the feelings, thoughts and emotions of others . It involves understanding others not from our own perspective, but from theirs, both cognitively and emotionally.

Empathy has different components that allow us to put ourselves in the place of the other from different perspectives. These components constitute the sequential and necessary phases to create an internal representation of the mental states of other people: emotional recognition, emotional integration and the initiation of congruent behaviors.

"Empathy depends not only on one's ability to identify another person's emotions, but also on one's ability to put oneself in the other person's shoes and experience an appropriate emotional response." -Charles G. Morris-

Cognitive empathy: emotional recognition

From the content, verbal and non-verbal, that a subject emits during social interaction, we may be able to recognize what the person has in mind, but without (yet) experiencing any emotional involvement .

This ability has been equated with what we know as the theory of mind , which is the ability to attribute mental states to other people . That is, it supposes the ability to understand that people have their own thoughts, emotions and private events, different from those of others.

Affective empathy: emotional integration

Once we have been able to "grasp" another person's experience at a cognitive level, affective empathy comes into play. This component of empathy gives us a special sensitivity to understand or feel what others are feeling, without infecting us with their emotional state.

Finally, sympathy or empathic concern is set in motion, which is what allows behaviors congruent with the emotional states of others that we are perceiving to be triggered (helping behaviors, for example). We are going to know exactly what empathic concern consists of and how it relates to other constructs.

Empathic concern: I feel what you are feeling and I want to help you

Also known as sympathy, empathic concern is the tendency or the ability to experience feelings of compassion, concern and affection for other people , especially when faced with difficulties, it is to feel what the other is feeling. The word "sympathy" comes from the Greek and literally means 'to suffer together' .

This sensitivity to the needs of other people puts us in a position to offer our help and even to carry out altruistic, prosocial and self-giving behaviors . This stage is the end of a long process that becomes, after feeling the pain of others, in the intention of helping to alleviate it.

"I am convinced that the proper use of time consists in serving other people, other sentient beings." -Dalai Lama-

How is empathic concern “measured”?

Empathic concern is one of the subscales measured by the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI). The items that measure empathic concern are the following:

  • I often have tender and caring feelings towards people less fortunate than me
  • Sometimes I don't feel very worried about other people when they have problems
  • When I see someone being teased I tend to protect them
  • When I see someone injured or who has been hurt I tend to remain calm
  • The misfortunes of other people do not usually distress me much
  • When I see that someone is being treated unfairly, I don't usually feel very sorry for him / her
  • I am often quite emotionally affected by things that happen to me
  • I would describe myself as a fairly sensitive person

Is it the empathic concern most characteristic of some professions?

Empathic concern is a quality that many people possess, it does not have to be limited to a professional field. Although it is true, it seems to be a necessary quality for good practice in some professions such as social health, whose work is based on dedication and helping others.

To focus on one case, empathic concern - and empathy, in general - is a useful and necessary skill or quality in a psychologist . This will be the one that allows you to "enter" into the internal world of your patient to create a bond or alliance (essential in the therapy process) and a common space for dialogue and trust.

As we have seen, differentiating one's own feelings from those of others is necessary to avoid emotional contagion. This is known as instrumental dissociation. However, we know that sometimes it is inevitable to “take work home”. This can lead to syndromes such as burnout or empathic concern.

"This is our maximum duty: to be able to give all our help to those who need it in extreme degree. -Cicero-

Empathic worry, burnout, and compassion fatigue

On the one hand, the burnout caregiver syndrome describes a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion that can appear in people who care for dependent or sick people. The three basic aspects of burnout , described by Christina Maslach are the following:

  • Emotional tiredness , which translates into a feeling of absolute exhaustion together with a perception of lack of coping resources and inability to fulfill responsibilities.
  • Depersonalization , which can turn the caregiver's task into something automatic, eliminating the emotional connection between the caregiver and the person cared for, which can limit the quality of the caregiver
  • Low personal fulfillment that leads to a feeling of personal ineffectiveness and negative self-perception, which can have a very negative impact on the caregiver's self-esteem

People who score highest in empathic concern are those who could develop this syndrome.

On the other hand, compassion fatigue is the result of a cumulative process that develops due to a prolonged state of emotional distress due to continuous and intense contact with patients. It has been shown that the higher the level of empathy, the greater the probability of developing compassion fatigue.

A curiosity about this syndrome is that it shares some symptoms with post-traumatic stress disorder, such as re-experiencing, avoidance and hyperarousal.

Both syndromes can have serious repercussions, not only at the work level, but also at the personal level . This can translate into low motivation, perception of low professional training, distancing from the rest of the team, social isolation ...

Ecpathy to “compensate” for empathic concern

Taking care of people who take care of other people is essential, as is self-care. Taking care of yourself allows you to take care of others . Avoiding social isolation, guaranteeing a good diet and a good sleep pattern, favoring emotional ventilation or learning to set limits are just some of the measures that can help reduce both syndromes.

However, we must mention one of the most frequent scientific contributions in the field of empathy: ecpathy . As we said, one of the essential aspects of empathy is to be able to differentiate one's own feelings and those of others, to avoid emotional contagion (which would increase the probability of suffering from compassion fatigue and burnout ).

Ecpathy is a mental process that allows us to avoid (or, at least, limit) the emotional contagions that we receive from others . It is about being able to try on other people's shoes, to understand what it feels like to wear them, but not to own them. This will allow us to offer help without it being affected by a "contagious" mood. Developing it can be the key to being empathetic without limiting the quality of our assistance.