Are you on the edge of the empathy abyss?
Being too empathetic can be bad for your mental health!
We all know that empathy is important: Isn’t it one of those things there’s just too little of? But, like many things, too much empathy may be bad for you. Now, there are a lot of different meanings of empathy, ranging from understanding what someone is feeling, to vicariously feeling what another person is going through to awfully complicated philosophical versions where it seems impossible to know if we can ever know what a person really feels. Hard on the brain! Wikipedia, as always, gives a great overview. For the moment, though, I am talking about empathy in the way Dr. Paul Bloom describes it, “the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does” or, more simply, “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.” Dr. Bloom is a Canadian-born Yale psychologist in the midst of some controversy over his recent book, Against Empathy. Controversy or no, he has some valid points.
How can empathy be a bad thing for your mental health? Well, the issue revolves around this point of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Let’s take a look at an average day for a moment. Whether it is a co-worker, child, friend, partner or parent, there are a lot of people around us who look to us for support and caring. Then, there is the daily news, people begging on the street, photos of animal abuse on your Facebook feed; everything calls for an emotional response: “Like,” “Love,” “Angry,” “Sad,” our emotions are called upon all the time. And how could you not care? You are a kind and caring person, so you feel, you care. But this is the empathy abyss. In your busy life, how can you care about all these things? But, how can you NOT?
Here is a bit of the problem: Empathy works. This is why ads pull at your heartstrings, and intensely emotional photos draw you in. Studies show that when an appeal is made for your help or kindness, asking you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you will. Well, your brain will, and along with it, your emotions. Perhaps you see a homeless person begging at an intersection; you imagine how that feels and are overwhelmed by your inability to help. Or, when you’re at work and a friend texts you about a recent relationship devastation; your heart lurches in sync with the news. Empathy can be an unconscious reaction, or it can be a part of a conscious process where you sit and listen to another person’s story, and understand their pain through connecting with them directly. Either way, one of the problems with this is that empathy is “neurologically literal,” as Bloom calls it. This means that if you put yourself in someone else’s shoes and empathize with their problem, your brain “lights up” as if that experience happened to you. Engaging with friends and family in this constant state of “hyperarousal” is exhausting for you, and has a negative effect on your mental health, leaving you with all the stress and emotion of those you empathize with.
Another thing about empathy is that it can make you biased, and push you to focus too much on the short term things close to your heart, perhaps missing the bigger picture. By this, I mean that you may tend to take the side of someone close to you, without really being able to have an objective take on the situation. Sure, it feels great to support your friends, but is the most helpful thing to do to simply agree with a person, regardless of right or wrong? We seem to be living in a polarized world, where sides are chosen very quickly. Empathizing deeply for one cause, or creating a “spotlight” focus on it, may mean that another important cause is ignored, or pushed to the side. It is hard to have a balanced outlook when you are really focusing on someone’s specific pain. Yet, sometimes, the bigger picture is important, for them, for you, and for the situation at hand.
Let’s look at empathy from the other side, as well. What happens when a friend tells you terrible news, and you empathize with them deeply? You say, “oh no!” and “OH THAT’S AWFUL!” and, “I can’t believe it!” You empathize. You feel their pain and react as if it is your own, because, you DO care, and it IS awful. Now, there is the possibility that this reaction makes your friend feel better: It can be good to know you’re not alone in your feelings. But… what if you make your friend feel worse? What if your, “oh no!” stokes their feeling of just how awful the situation is? And, your friend gets ever more distressed and upset… and of course, so do you, as you empathize with your friend’s pain? As you can see, empathy can sometimes inflate the feelings of distress a person has, because they think, oh no, YOU think it is really awful, too! Empathy isn’t helping those in your life you want to support, and it can mentally exhaust you.
I am not suggesting you abandon empathy entirely; that isn’t the road to being a better friend, or to having good mental health. However, there are a few steps you can take to curb the visceral empathy reaction and help keep yourself on an even emotional keel.
1) Step back from the abyss! Empathy is a finite resource, use it wisely! When you find yourself involved in a story that triggers an emotional response, take the time to ask yourself if you can just listen with kindness and caring, not via engaging with the emotion of the situation.
2) On that note, in order to minimize the emotional content, engage with the story with quiet, “mm-hhhmmms?” or a “go on” or two, instead of the more energizing “oh no!” or “I can’t believe it!”
3) Be aware that if you’re in a hyper-aroused empathetic state, your decisions are likely to be biased and you might not even notice. If you are emotionally engaged, try to take some time and space before you give advice, whether to a friend or for yourself.
4) Wait to hear more. Before you react the way the incident would make you feel, remember different people have different experiences. You may feel an incident as a “10” on the emotion scale and if you react that way, your friend who found it just slightly distressing might rethink it, to negative results!
Ultimately, the goal is: Listen with the objective to understand the person, but without “feeling what they feel.” Limit the possibility of empathetic distress by thinking more about compassion – loving kindness – than empathy. Dr. Bloom tells us that empathy is like “sugary soda, tempting and delicious, but bad for us.” You don’t have to engage deeply in the emotions of the other to be a good partner, a good friend, or to be kind and in fact, not doing so often helps a person make better choices and decisions. Engage with compassion and kindness to support those around you, and you will also take care of your own mental well-being!
Have a look at Dr. Bloom’s thoughts on empathy here: http://bigthink.com/videos/paul-bloom-explains-why-empathy-is-bad
Or, buy his book! Bloom, P. (2016). Against empathy: The case against rational compassion (1st ed.). New York, NY: Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.