The Effects of Mental Illness on Empathizing With Others

What is empathy?

Empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably, but they are two different feelings. Sympathy is when you can understand another person’s feelings and struggles, but only through the lens of your own life. Empathy, on the other hand, is an understanding regardless of your own experience.

In her article for HealthLine, Susan York Morris explains two different types of empathy: affective and cognitive. “Affective empathy is the ability to feel or share in another person’s emotions. It’s sometimes called emotional empathy or primitive empathy. Cognitive empathy is the ability to recognize and understand another person’s perspective and emotions.”

How can empathy be affected by mental illness?

Some mental illnesses, then, logically, can affect our capacity for empathy. Even those who are neurotypical can struggle with empathy, though something called neuroplasticity allows you to retrain your brain. In his article for Psychology Today, Dr. Douglas LaBier explains how to overcome something he calls “empathy deficit disorder”:

“That is, research also shows that your brain is capable of being trained and physically modified through conscious practices…You can ‘grow’ specific emotions and create new brain patterns that reinforce them. As you redirect and refocus your thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the direction you desire, the brain regions associated with them are reinforced.”

Some conditions such as Autism or Asperger’s can include a lack of empathy as a symptom. Those living with these conditions may struggle understanding the world from perspectives that are not their own. Other conditions such as depression make it difficult to feel empathy even if you understand it as an intellectual concept. Ugo Uche, in his article for Psychology Today, explains that “A person who has gone a number of years not allowing himself to experience his feelings, cannot adequately practice the concept of empathy…”

Building Empathy Skills

As Dr. LaBier explains, empathy is a skill. With focused work, you may be able to build your capacity for empathy. There are many reasons to expand your ability to feel empathy. Many careers require an understanding of your co-workers and/or clients. It can also help with interpersonal relationships. “EDD keeps you locked inside a self-centered world, and that breeds emotional isolation, disconnection and polarization.”

However, when you develop your sense of empathy, “…without abandoning or losing your own perspective, you can experience the other’s emotions, conflicts, or aspirations from within the vantage point of that person’s world. And that kind of connection builds healthy, mutual relationships – an essential part of mental health”. Mental illness or other neurodivergent conditions can make it difficult to develop empathy, but not impossible, and the regular work it takes to build up your skills can have a positive impact on other elements of your life. This could, with time, help alleviate some symptoms of mental illness.

Finally, when asking others to have empathy for your own struggles, it can be easier to ask for when you offer an empathetic ear of your own. Knowing the relationship is built on communication and mutual vulnerability might make seeking help easier. Do you or someone you know struggle to empathize with the world around you? Let us know how you’ve worked on your empathy skills or helped another work on theirs.

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