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From Emotional to Cognitive Empathy

By Brittany Polat

As a caregiver, you’re very familiar (I’m sure) with the heavy emotional toll of giving so much to other people. It’s an occupational hazard of any caring role. You may see others suffering on a daily basis, or you may be required to provide continuous kindness and patience that you don’t always have. You might even start to feel burned out, and when this happens, it’s very difficult to continue caring for others.

As caregivers, we want to be empathetic and understanding. But we don’t want to be so empathetic that we feel emotionally distressed in difficult situations. So the key is to reduce emotional empathy (where you literally feel someone else’s pain) and increase cognitive empathy (where you understand someone else but do not feel their emotions). This more cognitive type of empathy, alongside your natural desire to care for the person, will enable you to avoid empathic distress and respond effectively in your caregiving role.

People traditionally think of emotional empathy as a good thing, and many of us assume that the more of it you have, the better. But this is not really true. We have finite emotional resources, and for those of us whose jobs or roles require lots of care, it’s not sustainable to emotionally identify with others all the time. It’s exhausting and leads very quickly to burnout.

Another problem with emotional empathy is that it can lead to what psychologists call “empathic distress.” As Buddhist monk and psychologist Matthieu Ricard says,

Empathy can lead to an altruistic motivation, but it can also, when we find ourselves confronted with another person's suffering, give rise to a feeling of distress and avoidance that leads us to close in on ourselves or turn away from the sufferings we're witnessing. (Altruism, p. 40)

This feeling of distress shifts our focus away from the other person and towards ourselves (our own emotions). As Ricard says, “Egocentric contemplation of the suffering of others undermines our courage; it is felt as a burden that only increases our distress” (p. 48). We are so upset that we just want to get rid of our own discomfort, and this can lead to shutting down emotionally. So, paradoxically, too much empathy can actually lead to turning away from others instead of helping them.

Due to the negative impact of emotional empathy, we want to limit how much we emotionally identify with our students, patients, children, or clients. Instead, we want to focus on our ability to help them. Matthieu Ricard has a very nice analogy for how this works.

Imagine I'm sitting on a plane next to a person terrified of air travel and obviously frozen in speechless unease. The weather is beautiful, the pilot is experienced, and even though I personally feel at ease, that does not prevent me from feeling and showing sincere concern for that person and trying to reassure him or her as best I can by a calm, warm presence. For my part, since I feel no anxiety, I am not disturbed by what the other feels, but I feel concern for the person and for what he or she is feeling. It is precisely this calm that allows me to soothe that person's anxiety as much as possible and reassure him. (Altruism, p. 42)

In this scenario, you are only able to help the distressed woman if you yourself remain calm and understand there is nothing to be afraid of. If you were just as anxious as she is, how could you provide reassurance or assistance?

The Stoics tell a similar story. It’s good to care for others and show them that we care. But we want to do so without feeling what they are feeling. Those negative emotions are not good for anyone, and if you are overcome by distress, it’s unlikely you will be able to help the other person. Instead, we can show our sympathetic understanding without entering into their sorrow. Here’s how Epictetus puts it:

When you see someone weeping in sorrow because his child has gone away, or because he has lost his possessions, take care that you’re not carried away by the impression that he is indeed in misfortune because of these external things, but be ready at once with this thought, “It isn’t what has happened that so distresses this person—for someone else could suffer the same without feeling that distress—but rather the judgment he has formed about it.” As far as words go, however, don’t hesitate to sympathize with him, or even, if the occasion arises, to join in his lamentations; but take care that you don’t also lament deep inside. (Handbook, 16)

As Stoics, we realize that all the tragedies of life are simply part of the human experience. We can help comfort others, but we cannot change the nature of the world. We can’t change what it means to be human. But we can tap into our deepest understanding of the nature of things and realize that our strength lies in accepting and appreciating life as it is. If we allow ourselves to become distressed by the nature of things, we won’t be able to help others effectively. Just like in the airplane example above, we can play our role best when we’re calm and understanding, not when we’re feeling another person’s pain.

Cognitive empathy can also help us to continue providing care when we don't feel like it. Sometimes we might be physically or emotionally exhausted, and we simply can't "care" anymore. Or we might be working with a difficult person or in a situation that feels hopeless. At these times cognitive empathy is essential. If we are relying on an emotional connection with others to inspire us to help, then we will stop helping when that emotional connection is gone. But when we are cognitively empathetic, then that motivation doesn't change, even when we don't "feel" like being patient and understanding. We have trained ourselves to care anyway.

Instead of emotional empathy, our goal is to develop a steadfast goodwill toward others. This means consistently wishing for good things for other people, no matter what they happen to be doing. We wish them good things when they are upset, angry, frustrated, bereaved, depressed, confused, hostile, or whatever they may be. Our own goodwill is not dependent on whether the other person is being nice to us. In our roles as caregivers, we are often called on to show kindness to others who are uncooperative, confrontational, or not in their right minds.

Marcus Aurelius tells us that we find delight in showing goodwill to other people (Meditations, 8.26), and that “it is a special characteristic of human beings to love even those who stumble” (Meditations, 7.22). Our job, especially when we are in a position of responsibility over others, is to treat others with goodwill even if they don’t “deserve” it. And as Epictetus reminds us, we should never be harsh with someone because they don’t know how to be a good person (Discourses, 2.22). No one wants to be wrong or do things badly. Everyone is just doing what seems right to them.

If our care depends only on feeling empathetic toward others, we will not be able to care effectively if we get burned out, or when our clients, patients, or students are difficult to get along with. But by removing the emotional component of empathy, we solve both of these issues. We remove the main source of burnout (emotional distress). We also enable ourselves to show patience and kindness even toward difficult people, because our patience comes from our head, not our heart (so to speak). This is the advantage of cognitive empathy over emotional empathy. We understand others, we can more effectively help others, and we preserve our own mental and emotional health.

So as you go about caring for others in coming days or weeks, try these steps to convert your emotional empathy into cognitive empathy.

  • Think carefully about whether you are emotionally identifying with your client’s pain, or whether you are becoming emotionally distressed by their noncompliance.

  • Call out your own emotion. Remind yourself that you are in charge of your emotions, and you can change your emotions by changing your judgment of the situation.

  • Reflect on the nature of things. Is what is happening to your client a normal part of life? Could it happen to anyone? If so, there is no need for you to feel distress. You can stay emotionally non-attached and still help them. In fact, you will help more effectively if you distance yourself from your distressing emotion.

  • Identify what your client needs and how you can best help them. Show that you understand and want to help them (without becoming emotionally distressed).

Remember, you don’t need to feel guilty about not “feeling” someone else’s pain. You’re not a bad person if you don’t empathize emotionally. In fact, you are becoming a wiser and more capable person. You are on your way to becoming a happier and more effective caregiver.

Reference: Ricard, M. Altruism. (2015). New York: Little, Brown.


Very timely for me. I recently started volunteering with a crisis hotline (largely because of some of what you talked about at Stoicon and on some podcasts, incidentally). It's extremely rewarding to help people through very dark times, but this sort of work would be so difficult if you were unable to separate emotional and cognitive empathy.

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Thank you, I'm glad this is helpful! How wonderful that you are volunteering with a crisis hotline--that is such important work. Get in touch if you'd ever like to write a blog post about your experience!

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