Empathy can be a wonderful trait if you can choose wisely when to be empathetic and to what degree.
When Empathy is Helpful
The ability to sense, imagine, and feel what someone else is feeling allows us to tune into other people’s emotions and to know when someone who is suffering can use some help. That help might involve showing sympathy and warmth, or it might involve making a plan and taking action. Someone whose family member has passed away probably needs warmth, understanding and sympathy, whereas someone who has lost a job or is sick may need help brainstorming job opportunities or help arranging a doctor’s appointment. Communities facing hardship such as hunger or unemployment may need people with money or logistical support.
When practical action or critical thinking is needed, too much empathy can get in the way. (See “Can you have too much empathy?”) If empathy tends to overwhelm you, it is wise to learn how to tune down your empathetic responses in situations where you need to be quick thinking, practical, or ready to take action. People can learn to moderate their immediate responses through awareness and practice.
How People Develop Empathy
We all develop specific traits and response mechanisms as a result of our own specific life experience. Some individuals are the responsible ones, others are funny, accommodating, bossy, or empathetic, etc. People who are very empathetic have often experienced an environment where a keen sensitivity to others’ suffering helped them avoid potential insecurity or danger. Examples include having a volatile or depressed parent that needed appeasing. Empathetic people develop a fine sense in detecting the emotional state of others as well as a strong drive to soothe another’s needs and emotional suffering.
Every personality trait has a good and a bad side. It generally becomes harmful when a person’s tendencies become too strongly ingrained and responses become automatic and impulsive.
Generally in adulthood, we find out how our personality traits may be making life difficult for us or those around us. Someone who is overly empathetic, for instance, may become overwhelmed by sadness or despair for the hardships of others to the point where their life becomes pure anguish. Another danger for the empathetic person is being manipulated by narcissistic or self-serving individuals. Imagine someone who sulks or dramatizes feeling hurt in order to exploit the empathetic person’s desire to ease their suffering. The use of guilt or exaggerated suffering to manipulate another person is a form of emotional fusion, which ultimately leads to misery.
Often the understanding that empathy can be harmful in certain cases is enough to give you permission to tune down your empathy. When you realize that empathy is not always helpful to others, you will no longer feel driven to dwell on the suffering of others. The goal is not to stop being who you are, but to develop awareness and see all of the choices you have in a given situation.
First, decide whether others will benefit from your empathy, more practical help, or indifference. Sometimes a show of warmth and sympathy is much needed and will be appreciated, but in some situations injecting too much heart-felt emotion can exacerbate the situation, distracting from practical and constructive strategies.
Second, beware of individuals who try to exploit you by calling you “uncaring,” or “cold,” the very labels that are most likely to bother you. They are trying to manipulate you. Beware also of those who want you to suffer when they are suffering. True friends may benefit from your empathy, but they will not want you to suffer.
Third, find a friend who is balanced, that is, not overly empathetic but not unempathetic, to consult when you are unsure of your reactions.
Fourth, when you need to tune down empathetic tendencies, change your focus by using the rational part of your brain. Read, plan, or figure out what specific action you can take. It is difficult to be overwhelmed by emotion when you focus on the specifics, What, Where, When and How. Just try doing a complex math equation to prove the point.
Therapy and Practice
Most people are able to intentionally adapt and adjust their personality depending on any given situation. For example, someone who is generally light-hearted and funny can regulate those traits during a serious business meeting. Military officers can modulate their tendency to use their authority when dealing with family or friends.
Problems only tend to arise when people have trouble tuning down their primary personality traits when it’s appropriate to do so. If you have trouble tuning down your empathy when you want to, “Voice Dialogue” or “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy” can help you learn and practice controlling the amount of empathy you experience and show.
In Voice Dialogue, you learn to access different parts of yourself at will, and thereby develop a stronger “Aware Ego,” which allows you to have better control over your automatic tendencies and behavior. Any particular “self” or personality trait has a whole conglomeration of thoughts, feelings, and physical and behavioral aspects.
A therapist can guide you to embody different parts of yourself at will, and have you practice turning up and down the volume, so to speak, of any particular personality trait. For example, you would embody your empathetic self to 80% and then tune that down to 20%, and then do the same thing with a contrasting trait, such as the action-oriented rational part of yourself. You also learn to mix different parts of yourself, for example, the moderately firm parent with the mildly empathetic parent—a great mix if you want a child to take you seriously without hating you.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) rarely involves actual embodiment of behavior but rather focuses on learning to become aware of your reactions and behavioral patterns. The therapist helps you find effective strategies and coping mechanisms to deal with your ineffective or harmful behavior and thinking.
In essence, both therapies help you to become more sharply aware of your own tendencies and their impact on yourself and others. Dramatic practice then rewires your brain and provides you with the ability to choose how to respond to the world around you, in order to be truly more helpful and lead a more satisfying life.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD