This information about empathy is from this paper, which I wrote for my undergraduate thesis in 2013 and I am by no means making an attempt to cover what empathy is in stone. This is simply based off of research I have done and am inclined to agree with, and think it may shed some light on the complexity of empathy, and help guide people to greater understanding when discussing empathy
anyway, here’s the bite-size version:
The word “empathy” itself only came into use in the early 20th century, and since then it has eluded a single strong, clear definition .
Some researchers have focused on the way in which we identify acutely with the feelings of others in times of distress; others have focused on the conscious efforts to understand perspectives unlike our own; and still others have put an emphasis on the action one takes as a result of one or both of the above conditions.
Affective empathy, also called affect-sharing, means the ability to “feel with” another individual. It is considered by many an inherent, inborn trait that occurs naturally. This is a primary element in why we cry at sad movies, experience sadness or anger on behalf of a person who is being hurt, or are moved to laughter by the laughter of people around us.
This is the ability to understand that while we experience another person’s emotions with affective empathy, these feelings are not actually OURS. While crying at a sad movie, we may become incapable of realizing the sadness we feel for the characters is not, in fact, our own sadness.
Self-other awareness allows our brains to clearly distinguish who is whom when we are feeling empathy (Gerdes et. al, 2013).
Self-other awareness is considered an ability of cognitive empathy because of the conscious thought required to initiate awareness.
Cognitive empathy has been described as “the more effortful, conscious appraisal process” (Gerdes et. al, 2013).
Cognitive empathy is about understanding another person’s thoughts and experiences or their perspective. If you were to watch somebody else trying to solve a frustrating puzzle, affective empathy would cause you to also feel frustrated, but cognitive empathy would allow you to understand why that person is frustrated.
Regardless of affect-sharing, cognitive empathy allows one to take another person’s perspective and rationally imagine how they might feel (Shamay-Tsoory, 2011).
IMPORTANTLY, both affective and cognitive empathy are a combination of learned skill and natural ability (Carkhuff, 1969).
Some people are hyper-sensitive to the emotions of others without a cognitive understanding of what is happening. Others may be incredibly perceptive and logical in understanding the thoughts and experiences of other people, but less inclined to adopt the emotions of others as if they were their own.
People with both strong and weak affective empathy can be taught cognitive skills for developing their empathy, and these cognitive skills may facilitate the use of affective empathy.
Please consider all of this when discussing empathy, especially in conversations involving neuroatypical people who may experience affective and/or cognitive empathy differently than neurotypical people.
Also keep in mind that people WITH empathy (both affective and cognitive) can still be capable of cruelty, and in fact, being able to understand a person’s emotional state is sometimes critical in emotional manipulation.
People with and without natural capabilities for affective/cognitive empathy are also, on the other hand, capable of compassion, and empathy is simply a means of understanding/feeling the emotions of people around you.
Empathy does not create compassion, though many people still argue it does (I found a number of papers including compassion as a component of empathy, but I personally disagree with this).