Emotional, Cognitive, or Compassionate: How Do You Empathize With Others?

Do you sometimes find it difficult to resonate with other people emotionally when they share their problems and personal distress with you? Do you feel so detached even if you try to understand their perspectives? Or, when people communicate their negative experiences with you, do you feel overwhelmed and psychologically drained because you actually feel the distressing emotions the way they feel?

Maybe you are empathizing with them cognitively but lack emotional empathy. Or you could be practicing emotional empathy but lacking the ability to distinguish your own emotions from others’ emotions.

In spite of its benefits, empathic interactions can be challenging. This article will help you understand the different forms of empathy and their variations. Doing so will bring to light the obstacles you may encounter when responding to other people’s suffering and help you avoid issues such as overidentification which can lead you to experience other people’s pain physically and activate the cardiovascular stress response.

Defining empathy

Empathy can be seen as an interpersonal bridge that makes sharing of experiences and bonding between individuals possible. Empathy enables individuals to understand, feel, and resonate with other people’s inner states including feelings, experiences, perceptions, and thoughts of others. Empathic interactions with other people involve understanding and sharing another person’s experiences by imagining yourself in that person’s situation. 

However, the key to empathy is to understand others’ feelings, experiences, or thoughts from their own frame of reference. When practiced correctly, empathy unites people, helps them better connect with and relate to each other, and eventually builds stronger relationships. It fosters the motivation for cooperative and prosocial behaviors such as helping each other, sharing with others, volunteering, and forgiveness.

Types of empathy

Research distinguishes how people resonate with others’ inner states. Empathy can be seen as encompassing separable but interacting processes: cognitional, affective, and motivational. Each type of empathy has challenges, yet each type is complementary to the other. 

Cognitive empathy

The first form, cognitive empathy, is similar to mental perspective-taking. It involves being able to recognize the perspective of another person and understanding what other people are experiencing without being emotionally involved. Cognitive empathy requires close attention to picking up on another person’s emotional signals and reading contextual cues, in order to gain an understanding of the other’s perspective regarding their current mental and emotional states.

Emotional empathy

The second form, emotional empathy (also called affective empathy), involves emotional resonance. It refers to the capacity to sense and share what the other individual is feeling through emotionally resonating with their feelings. 

Affective empathy is associated with the phenomenon where an individual’s feelings are aroused in response to recognizing the emotional states of another person. This type of empathy can be the product of cognitive empathy, or it can be a result of perceiving the emotional expressions of someone else, which can lead to the contagion of feelings from one person to the other.

Compassionate empathy

Empathic concern, or compassionate empathy, reflects the motivation to respond to another person’s suffering and to care for their welfare. Researchers suggest that perspective-taking can more effectively lead to compassionate concern for other people, rather than emotionally identifying with the troubles of others which can lead to personal distress.

Importance of perspectives

In some cases, empathy can lead to psychological exhaustion. When a person overidentifies with the other party’s distressing emotions or directly feels what others feel without realizing the distinction between oneself and others.


Research associates this negative outcome with self-oriented perspective-taking when empathizing with others’ negative experiences. Self-oriented perspective-taking can be defined as imagining how one would feel in another person’s situation from one’s own perspective. 

Therefore, self-oriented perspective-taking may result in feelings of discomfort and experience of personal distress, such as anxiety, on the observer’s part when witnessing the other person’s pain or negative feelings. 


Whereas, other-oriented perspective-taking means imagining how the other person thinks and feels in that situation on the basis of the observer’s knowledge of that person’s character. Therefore, other-oriented perspective-taking requires actively listening to how other people interpret their experiences and reading their emotions without confusion between oneself and the other.

To put simply, other-oriented perspective-taking is imagining a situation from the other person’s perspective, rather than one’s own. Researchers discuss that self-oriented responses due to their emotional burden on the giver can prevent compassion and empathic concern for the other, whereas other-oriented perspective-taking is considered to promote empathic concern and a focus on the receivers’ well-being.

In conclusion

Empathy is the ability to understand what another person is going through by taking the mental perspective of others and sharing their emotional experiences. Understanding another person’s point of view and feelings can give rise to a compassionate emotional response promoting helping behavior and empathic concern for the other.

If you would like to know more about empathy, check out the Wellbeing Science Labs. The lab uses the research of the Institute for Life Management Science to produce courses, certifications, podcasts, videos, and so much more. Visit the Wellbeing Science Labs today.

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