There are said to be two main types of empathy; the cognitive and the affective. Cognitive empathy is all about perspective taking and understanding another person’s situation. Basically, being able to put yourself in their shoes.
Affective empathy is more about feeling what the other person is feeling, experiencing their pain or distress. There is also a theory that some of us are ‘hyper-empathetic.’
According to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), hyper empathy is classified as a Personality Disorder. This would be for the few people that have the strongest symptoms, affecting their mental well-being. The neuroscientific theory behind this condition is that hyper empathy is caused by the brain’s mirror neurons being over-active.
There are some qualities that are more strongly associated with empathy that not so many of us have. These empathic qualities are hard to ignore as they make us stand out a little from our peers. If you recognize any of these qualities in yourself, then you may be a highly empathetic person.
Intuitive empaths can appear a little ‘spooky’ to others. An intuitive empathy will see a bad situation coming from afar, or tell you what you are thinking even before you have realized it yourself. If you experience regular gut feelings that turn out to be right, please do not be spooked. Intuition is a skill to be valued. Keep listening to your gut, it usually knows best.
2. Emotional exhaustion
Highly empathetic people will absorb negative emotions from the people around them. It can be exhausting. Have you ever sat next to a stranger and found that their heated phone conversation made you angry and stressed too? You have absorbed some of their emotion.
You may have heard the term ‘energy vampire?’ Some people are just tiring to be around, usually because of their negativity. If you are highly empathetic, then you will not last long around these people. You will feel very drained after a short period of time.
The best thing for your emotional state is to be around happy, positive people. You can be a part of spreading that positive energy, as you will absorb it so readily.
Do strangers chat to you randomly? This is one I experience a lot myself. If we use the neuroscientific theory of mirror neurons to explain this one, it makes sense that empaths are more approachable.
Mirroring other people’s expressions, posture and general demeanor is something that mirror neurons cause us to do unconsciously. It is all rather subtle, but the effects are strong.
I find that strangers tend to pick me to ask for directions, or just to share a passing comment about the weather. If you experience this too, you may be strongly empathetic, perhaps without even realizing it.