If we are lucky, we have one friend who’s good at communication and willing to help when we need them. What makes them a good friend? They seem to know when you’re having a bad day and what you need in order to feel loved. We value them because they are caring and empathetic.
Some people do seem to be able to more easily express empathy. Research suggests that when confronted with an emotional response some will reach out and respond with care and some people retract protectively:
Researchers have determined that people react in one of two ways when faced with another person’s emotions. Sometimes people respond with “empathic concern” or caregiving. They see themselves as a source of comfort or support for the other person.
But sometimes people feel threatened by the other person’s emotions and focus instead on themselves. They might try to help, to minimize their own discomfort. Typically they distance themselves. Psychologists call this response “empathic distress.”
There are also a number of reasons why we might not respond with empathy or why there might be an “empathy gap” between people in a situation. These reasons include everything from genetics to conditioning to shared experiences. However, the research suggests that empathy is a learned skill and that we choose whether or not to exercise our ability to respond appropriately to emotional situations.
As with most social skills, there’s no short cut to retraining bad habits. But the good news is that if you want to learn to be more supportive and empathetic, it’s something you can work to improve.