Empathy is often considered to be the source of good behavior. The literal meaning of empathy is “the ability to share another person’s feelings.” Our culture highly values empathy and assumes you cannot have too much of it. However, when you experience other people’s feelings too strongly, you can run into big problems. Paul Bloom’s book “Against Empathy” shows how empathy can often prevent a person from making sound decisions in a crisis:
“Unmitigated communion makes you suffer when faced with those who are suffering, which imposes costs on yourself and makes you less effective at helping.”
Compassion, Kindness, Empathy
There is a subtle but important distinction between compassion, kindness, and empathy. Compassion is the concern for the suffering of others, which is different from actually feeling or experiencing the suffering of others. Kindness means being friendly, generous, and considerate of others. Kindness creates positive other-oriented feelings and makes other people feel better, which results in positive health effects all around. Compassion and kindness promote pro-social motivation and behavior, and are not likely to get in the way of good decision-making and helpful action.
Empathy, on the other hand, often comes at a great cost. As Walt Whitman quipped: “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.” Becoming the wounded person creates distress for both the empathetic person and the suffering one, while also causing negative health outcomes for all. Moreover, too much empathy for a distressed person’s feelings often overwhelms the empathetic person and clouds clear thinking.
Do people in distress benefit from empathy?
Would you want a therapist to feel depressed or anxious when dealing with a patient who is depressed or anxious? Therapy would be impossible if therapists couldn’t put aside some of their empathy. Would you want a doctor to be overwhelmed with grief when dealing with the grief-stricken family members of a sick or dying patient? Would you want a pilot to feel the fear of the passengers in an emergency situation while airborne? Would you want a fireman to feel your loss while your life and property are burning or at risk? Clearly not. You want them to do their job calmly, quickly, and rationally, free of distracting emotions.
Empathy causes feelings of distress, which can incapacitate the empathetic person and obstruct objective thinking and effective action. Therefore, you can have more positive impact on others and on your own wellbeing when you do not experience too much empathy, albeit some empathy is helpful in making a person aware that others are suffering. People can be more effective helping distressed people when they are NOT experiencing strong feelings. The suffering person benefits more from people whose strength and decision-making are not hindered by feelings of distress.
A therapist should try to understand a client’s feelings, but without matching or absorbing those feelings. It is more important to be engaged by a client’s challenges and to think creatively about possible tools, options and solutions for improving the client’s life. In a medical emergency, you would want a trauma surgeon to stop the bleeding and assess the situation quickly without pausing to feel the patient’s pain. Pilots should focus on what actions are needed while remaining emotionally separated from their passengers in order to best serve them.
How does empathy affect relationships?
Too much empathy in a relationship leads to emotional fusion, which is quite destructive to the individuals involved. If your partner feels your anger or panic to the extent that you do, that will exacerbate the situation. If, instead, your partner remains emotionally separate, objective, calm and compassionate, then he or she can be a rock for you and help you gain perspective and insight into your situation. You can get better support and advice from someone who does not freak out or become upset when you are suffering and need support. Someone who remains cool and calm in difficult times can better guide and counsel you through emotional turmoil.
Similarly, parents who demonstrate too much empathy will overreact when their children are hurt or upset. A parent’s anxiety is infectious and will only increase the fearfulness and distress of the child. If the parent habitually overreacts to the child’s distress, either by panic or extreme coaxing or placating, the child may very well become an anxious, insecure individual. Children need to sense from their parents’ demeanor that everything will be fine. Often they learn resiliency and faith in the future from the parent’s calm, solution-oriented demeanor in stressful situations.
If you want to be effective at alleviating someone’s suffering, it is best to be compassionate and kind while remaining calm and emotionally separate enough to use your reason.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD
Reference: “Against Empathy” by Paul Bloom. 2016.