Empathy is the recognition and understanding of the states of mind, beliefs, desires, and particularly, emotions of others. It is often characterized as the ability to "put oneself into another's shoes", or experiencing the outlook or emotions of another being within oneself; a sort of emotional resonance.
Development of empathy
By the age of 2, children normally begin to display the fundamental behaviors of empathy by having an emotional response that corresponds with another person. Sometimes, toddlers will comfort others or show concern for them as early as 24 months of age. Also during the second year, toddlers will play games of falsehood or "pretend" in an effort to fool others, and this requires that the child know what others believe before he or she can manipulate those beliefs (Feldman, 1997).
In addition to the above use, the term empathy is also used by some people to signify their heightened or higher sensitivity to the emotions and state of others. This, reportedly, can lead to both positive aspects such as a more skilled instinct for what is "behind the scenes" with people, but also to difficulties such as rapid over-stimulation, overwhelm or stress caused by an inability to protect oneself from this so-called 'pick-up'. Such people may for example find crowds stressful simply due to picking up what is often described as "white noise" or multiple emotions as they pass through it, a phenomenon not to be confused with agoraphobia and sometimes informally known as crowd-sickness.
Empathy in this sense is ascribed by such people to various mechanisms. These include simply more sophisticated subconscious processing of sensory cues or stronger emotional feedback than the norm, (i.e. the normal human experience but more so), and therefore fit within present models. Some people, perhaps due to synesthesia, believe it instead to be a direct emotional sense or a feel for others' "energy". Many have attributed it to paranormal gifts such as those exhibited by Deanna Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The New Age religion has constructed a belief system around the anecdotal evidence of persons who claim to be "empaths" in this sense. This aspect of empathy is not usually clinically recognized, and not everyone calling themselves an "empath" intends to imply that they are gifted with psychic ability.
A recurrent theme of discussion on such websites relates to the impact upon individuals, and therefore also methods (including mental practices, emotional processes and ritual) which anecdotally can help reduce the intensity of empathic reactions to others' feelings to a more bearable level (informally called 'shielding' or emotional detachment).