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Can You Have Too Much Empathy?

How empathic should you be?

Key points

  • There are three different types of empathy.
  • Too much empathy can be problematic.
  • While leaders, counselors, and health care workers need to be empathic, one type of empathy is bad for them.

When it comes to empathy, there tend to be two common misconceptions. First, we assume that there is only one type of empathy. Second, we assume more empathy is better—that you can’t have too much empathy. However, neither is true and here’s why.

3 Different Types of Empathy

Research on the personality trait of empathy suggests that it takes different forms. One type of empathy is seeing things from another’s perspective—a sort of “cognitive” empathy, what might be better described as perspective-taking. There is good evidence that being able to take another’s perspective is healthy: It helps you to be more open-minded and, according to our research, it is particularly good for leaders to possess.

The other two forms of empathy are both more emotional in nature. Psychologist Mark Davis labels these empathic concern and personal distress.

Empathic concern is recognition of another’s emotional state and expressing understanding of it. This is where the empathic individual reads subtle (or not so subtle) nonverbal and verbal cues, asks what’s wrong, and expresses back concern and understanding. For the empathic person, this is very positive. You support the distressed person, you recognize what’s amiss, and it can help both the other person and the quality of the relationship.

The third type of empathy, personal distress, may be more problematic. Personal distress is sympathetically experiencing the same emotion as the other person, it’s captured in the phrase, “I feel your pain!” Through a process known as “emotional contagion,” the distressed person’s emotion is nonverbally transmitted to the other individual, causing the second person to experience a similar emotion. In other words, you cry, and it makes me cry.

Although having a sympathetic friend who can share both your negative and positive emotions may be a good thing, research suggests that there may be negative outcomes for the person high on the personal distress dimension. For example, in our research on hospice nurses, we found that personal distress was negatively related to hospice nurse performance, while empathic concern was positively related to good hospice nursing.

Similarly, we found that for leaders, empathic concern was positively related to effective leadership, while personal distress was negatively correlated. This makes sense because actually feeling a patient’s (or a follower’s) distress makes these professionals less effective in their roles.

So, what is the conclusion regarding empathy?

In most instances, it is important to demonstrate empathic concern for another’s feelings, but getting overly affected might not be a good thing–at least for the empathic person. For example, experiencing another person’s negative emotions contagiously may adversely affect one’s mood and disposition.

Of course, in close relationships, sharing feelings might be just what is needed, perhaps for both parties. Clearly, however, empathy can take different forms, and for leaders, nurses, counselors, and others, it is important to understand others’ emotions and show empathy and concern— but perhaps not share the same emotional state.

What are your thoughts on the types of empathy you have experienced?

Here is a link to complete the multidimensional empathy scale.


Riggio, R.E., & Taylor, S.J.* (2000). Personality and communication skills as predictors of hospice nurse performance. Journal of Business and Psychology, 15, 347-355.

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