There is a right way and a wrong way to empathize with others - and most of us do it wrong, psychologists claim.

We are told to 'walk a mile in another person's shoes' to get an idea of how they feel and react accordingly.

But a new study on mental health warns that few of us understand how do it correctly - and end up upsetting ourselves, while failing to help the person at hand.

Effective empathy is not wildly different, the researchers at the University of Buffalo, in New York, explain, reports Daily Mail.


However, they say people in positions of emotional support - such as teachers, trainee doctors, and therapists - should be trained in subtly different ways to counsel others that allows them to be completely supportive without affecting their own mental health.

Using stress physiology measures, the research found that there are two routes to empathy.

They found that one way to empathise is to observe and infer how someone feels, known as imagine-other perspective-taking (IOPT).

The second is for someone to put themselves into someone else's situation, known as imagine-self perspective-taking (ISPT).

Lead author Michael Poulin, an associate professor in the University at Buffalo Department of Psychology, said the ISPT route was 'more personally distressing and upsetting than the other.'

'You can think about another person's feelings without taking those feelings upon yourself,' Poulin said.

'But I begin to feel sad once I go down the mental pathway of putting myself into the place of someone who is feeling sad.

'I think sometimes we all avoid engaging in empathy for others who are suffering partially because taking on someone else's burdens could be unpleasant.

'On the other hand, it seems a much better way to proceed is if it's possible to show empathy simply by acknowledging another person's feelings without it being aversive.'

Professor Poulin added: 'When we are feeling threatened or anxious, some peripheral blood vessels constrict making it harder for the heart to pump blood through the body.

'We can detect this in the lab and what we found is that people who engaged in ISPT had greater levels of this threat response compared to people who engaged in IOPT.'

The study draws some interesting conclusions for people working in the medical profession such as doctors and nurses who are prone to burnout.

It could also have relevance for parents who may think twice about how they speak to their children.

'Rather than saying to a child, "how would you feel if that were done to you," maybe we should be saying "think about how that person is feeling",' Professor Poulin said.

'In fact, now that we're transitioning to such a service economy, it's nearly everybody: technical support, complaint hotline operators, restaurant servers.'