The Other Side of Empathy

‘A resounding feeling of despair filled me as this visit came to a close. The whole situation had been a stressful, uncomfortable and, quite honestly, very sad experience. In this moment of darkness, a clear thought entered my mind. Yes, when the time comes for me to help my mum, the situation might be different, perhaps not as dire, perhaps easier. But, come what may, we are all going to have to do this.’

Some people experience having ‘too much’ empathy — over empathizing with people and situations so that it becomes ‘harmful’ to oneself and others.

Above is an example where I had done just that — during my work as a design researcher interacting with seniors in poor health. The project at first seemed dry, but after observing and interacting with the many people experiencing such difficulties, my eyes were anything but — I was in tears by the end of the first my research visit. I had taken empathy too far — and if I continued this way it would become more of a hinderance to the work than a help.

‘Empathy’ is classically described as ‘stepping into another’s shoes’, and is at the core of design thinking. As designers, we endeavour to be empathic and understand the needs of the people we are serving, in order to design around these needs and ensure our interventions are helpful. In my experience however, ‘empathy’ covers a bigger and messier realm. I have found that it is often wrongly used in the world of design, casually spoken about as a thing you ‘do’ rather than a thing you ‘have’.

In fact I believe empathy should be described as a muscle. It is developed in an area of your brain known as the Prefrontal Cortex (this is hugely simplified, for more details see the work of Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki for more specific brain regions), and just like any other muscle, it can be be grown and flexed. Through my research I have learnt that with practice, effort and by taking on new challenges, we can expand on our ability to empathize and become more deeply empathic. But this thought also haunts me — do we want to create a world of highly empathic people?

Being highly empathic — a strength or a weakness?

I always believed that being a highly empathic person was one of my strengths as a designer. I bring a sense of openness to my projects that fosters trust with the people I work with, enabling me to develop a deep understanding of someone and truly uncover their underlying needs. However, over the last year I have made the connection between me being highly empathic and my tendency to experience burnouts. It seems to be this same ‘openness’ also creates my vulnerability — resulting in me taking on people’s emotions in a way that becomes harmful to myself, and in turn, to them.

Burnout is described in the dictionary as ‘the state of having no energy or enthusiasm because of working too hard’. I have started to recognise the signs — everything becomes overwhelming to the point where I can’t manage normal day-to-day activities (such as get on the train to work). It seems so irrational that I continue to push myself and this results in physically and mentally having no energy or enthusiasm for anything.

After experiencing my fifth burnout in ten years I decided to use my last quarter here at Stanford to look deeper into the psychological impacts of empathy. The questions were self-centered at first — how could I remain highly empathic (which I knew resulted in meaningful relationships and better work) whilst also keeping myself safe (and eliminating burnout)? Does this balance exist and how can it be achieved? Is there such a thing as an ‘optimal’ empathy, and how would I find mine? As my research progressed I discovered that I was not the only one who ‘suffers’ from being highly empathic. I wanted to share my experiences and expose to others the different sides of empathy. Could ‘tools’ exist to help people remain safe whilst practicing empathy? Could there be a way for an individual to explore what conditions create their own ‘optimal’ empathy? Ultimately, how could I turn my research and learnings on the subject into something useful for others?

Below I share with you the key points that have come out of my exploration so far.

I want to start with an insight that I’ve struggled to accept during my research — which is that empathy is in fact so intrinsically linked to the self — rather than to the other. I currently teach students that empathy isn’t about them — “It’s not about you” — I’ll preach. However, I have discovered over the past few months that to be authentic and stay true to yourself during empathic work, and in order to remain safe, you need to have a high level of self awareness — allowing you to practice a deeper, ‘optimal’, or dare I say ‘good’ empathy.

‘Optimal’ empathy

Is there such thing as an ‘optimal’ empathy? How can individuals explore what conditions create their own ‘optimal’ empathy?

“There’s probably a quadratic nature of empathy. More is not always better, at a certain point it tips and goes down again.” — Erika Weisz; Doctoral Candidate, Psychology

It appears that people sit on an empathy spectrum. You can have low empathy (and find it very hard to empathise) or high empathy (where empathizing comes naturally). Is there such a thing as ‘optimal’ empathy? And if there is, how does one achieve it? My inkling on this is that it’s probably a very individual thing — so much to do with personal emotion levels and the context one is in. How could we help people explore these levels within themselves?

What if empathy is not just one ‘spectrum’ but in fact a continuous flow of highs and lows, ever-evolving with time and experience? high and low points shift according to the context you’re in — for example perhaps you have more empathy in situations where you feel safer (e.g. with your family) and a lower level of empathy when you feel out of your comfort zone (e.g. starting a new job). Within this flow, how can we identify and know the middle ‘state’, and know how to return to it?

Self/Other Overlap

How does one retain a sense of self? How can we foster this self awareness?

“You can take empathy too far — you can lose your own identity. You can become them.” — Roy Soetikno, Professor of Medicine

Many people (including myself) have experienced having ‘too much’ empathy — empathizing so much with someone that you feel you become the other person. When you blur the lines of identity with another, it can be harmful not only to you but also to your relationships with those close to you — so it’s important to retain a sense of self and maintain (and sometimes strengthen) this distinction. How can we keep true to ourselves and remain authentic whilst trying to deeply understand the life of another? More and more, it appears that self awareness is crucial when it comes to empathy — and so we must foster this sense of self as much as we do our work on our ability to empathize.


How can we foster empathy so that it builds reciprocity? So that it isn’t one-sided?

“With empathy there must be reciprocity, or it leads to burnout.” 
— Anonymous, Therapist

My research pointed towards the idea of reciprocity — the importance of receiving feedback from the person you’re empathizing with. From a particular therapist’s experience, if reciprocity doesn’t exist then one needs to halt your empathy, or you will experience empathy burnout. This resonated — I have noticed when working with someone particularly ‘cold’ I struggle to keep my levels of empathy up high. For me, this empathy burnout can then lead to physical burnout too. Given that we teach empathy to our students, it’s important that we build in the idea of reciprocity and ensure that students don’t see empathy as a one-sided ‘tool’ or ‘technique’. I believe empathy should be spoken about as a relationship — and that trust and rapport needs to be built between student and the other in order for a ‘healthy’ empathy to exist.

Empathy Equalizer

What strategies can we use to turn up empathic concern and turn down vicarious emotion — and how can we teach them? Is this a way to achieve ‘optimal’ empathy?

“If empathy is an umbrella term, and within empathy you have perspective taking, vicarious emotion and a third wing of empathic concern — if you can turn up the empathic concern sub-component, that could be very helpful for you.” — Erika Weisz; Doctoral Candidate, Psychology

This notion of being able to break down empathy into different elements is really helpful. Erika explained that you don’t have to take on or share the emotions of someone else to be an authentic empathizer with them, but rather you need to be able to show empathic concern. The question then becomes — how can you actually ‘turn up’ your empathic concern and turn down the tendency to vicariously share other’s emotions? Various research (including this article by Erika’s lab director Jamil Zaki) points towards nurturing compassion, and to train yourself through the practice of compassion meditation.

Empathy to Action

What are ways we can translate empathy into action? Is this an answer to empathy burnout?

“There’s no point having empathy if you don’t do anything with it. If you don’t want to be bogged down, you need to be able to act.” — Kaneeka Agarwal, Design Researcher & Service Designer

This idea resonated with a lot of people I spoke to — that if you’re not able to ‘do’ something with the empathy, then it can become a burden. Essentially, if you’re not able to turn empathy into some sort of action, it becomes harmful.

But what is ‘action’ in this context? Perhaps it doesn’t have to be a physical action, it could be verbal or mental. Good therapists do a great job of this, where they actively listen, take your emotion and thoughts and they repackage and shape it into something to give back to you that is helpful.

I think this concept has a great synergy with what we do as designers, in reframing a problem. We take an issue, and work to reframe it into a new way of thinking that opens up the space for creating solutions. In psychology this idea of reframing is called ‘cognitive reappraisal’ — James Gross’s model of emotion regulation details the psychological theory of thought reframing. I wonder if this can inspire a design specific model? Perhaps our reframing of problems that we do in as Design Thinkers is how we choose to turn our empathy into action — to move forward the work into something positive and meaningful.

I’ll be continuing my work on empathy — concentrating on the area of Empathy to Action. In discovering the work of the Centre for Compassion(CCARE) here at Stanford, compassion is something that we should be aware of and talking about. CCARE put forward the idea that ‘empathy’ is generally a more instinctive and reactive emotional state, whereas ‘compassion’ extends beyond empathy to some sort of positive action or mindful intervention. Perhaps it’s time to ‘reframe’ empathy to include compassion, and in doing so, consider how might we teach compassion within our design context.

Thoughts and Learnings

  • Empathy lives and develops in the brain — it is useful to think about it as a muscle that can be grown and flexed
  • It isn’t too often talked about in design, but empathy can be taken too far, and can become more of a hinderance than a help
  • How could we discover our own ‘optimal’ empathy? Could there be an individual, personal exercise to help us explore and understand our own levels of empathy?
  • Self awareness is truly important to practicing a ‘healthy’ empathy — we need to find a balance of both retaining the boundaries between ourselves and others whilst continuing to foster empathy
  • Along with an increased self-awareness, encouraging the reciprocity of empathy may also be important to reduce physical and mental burnout
  • Being an empathy equalizer — the ability to be able to regulate your emotions (remaining concerned whist not vicariously sharing the emotions of others), could be very important skill to have for a designer, and may be achieved through compassion training
  • Turning empathy into action seems to be the crux of a ‘healthier’ empathy — currently the way that designers ‘reframe’ a problem is one approach to turning empathy into action. Moreover, developing our skills around compassion could to be a way for us to push beyond empathy.

Everything in this article is my own interpretation of my qualitative research, and I look forward to continuing the discussion — do contact me with your thoughts and questions. Thank you for reading!

This piece was original published by the Stanford