The Dark Side of Empathy
I had always assumed everybody was more or less able to build a connection to what other people were feeling. The first incident in my life that made me wonder if my levels of empathy were appropriate was in the 12th grade.
My boyfriend at the time helped my dad carry a heavy cupboard down the stairs in my parents’ house. It got too heavy, he let it slip, and the massive thing crushed his fingers against the wall. His hand went red and blue immediately. He said he was okay, not wanting to seem soft in front of my dad, but I could tell he was in severe pain. I wanted to help him and get some ice — but instead, I (!) fainted.
This kept happening. Watching close friends get vaccinated made me cry or faint. Seeing people who I cared about be happy made me laugh, but when they cried, I could literally feel their pain. This goes on to this day, where sometimes I feel a strange kind of anxiety that I don’t recognize, just to realize it is someone else’s.
This may be a more specific case, but for me this occurs not only with real people close to my heart — it even applies to movie characters. Watching scary, violent, or really sad movies? Not for me. I always wondered why anyone would be entertained by the thrill of witnessing say someone being robbed at gunpoint or losing a friend to cancer.
Whenever I do let myself be persuaded to go to the cinema, I regret it as soon as I feel myself identifying and, consequently, empathizing with a character who experiences something bad. I walk out of that cinema all depressed and can’t really shake it off (now, fortunately, all my friends know that any film they make me see needs to be approved for all audiences).
It almost feels like I get emotionally hijacked. My body, mind, and soul are unable to distinguish where my reality ends and someone else’s begins. This mainly happens with people that I deeply care about, but I care about a lot of people, so I realized I needed a solution. So, I took a look at what empathy really is, and how I can cultivate it without feeling drained by its flip side.
Empathy is understood as the ability to feel or enter into the emotions of another.
Psychologists distinguish two kinds: There’s cognitive empathy, which means being able to rationally understand what someone else is experiencing. And there’s emotional or affective empathy, which is typically the culprit in hyper-empathy, and means what I described above: being able to experience another’s emotions. I say “being able” because even though we are talking about its threats here, I still see this as a great skill to have.
Why hyper-empathy can be dangerous
Hyper-empathy can feel like being both a mirror and a sponge. When we pick up others’ emotions or bodily sensations that are negative in valence, we need to be able to distance ourselves from them.
Too much empathy makes the non-swimmer jump in to save the drowning person. For hyper-empaths, even though we feel a strong inclination to help, absorbing someone else’s problem is hindering in two ways: One, it makes us less likely to react in a helpful way. Two, it potentially hurts our psychological well-being.
Hyper-empaths in certain professions (e.g., therapists, doctors, and counselors) or tasks such as caregiving are at a higher risk, which can lead to burnout or depression if not managed properly.
However, obviously numbing all empathy is not the goal. Empathy is a beautiful strength, if understood and handled wisely.
Why empathy should be cultivated
From an evolutionary perspective, humans developed empathy because it was necessary for survival. Our ancestors needed to pick up on other people’s feelings to accurately judge situations and to get along.
Today, empathy is a crucial skill in relationship building in both our private and work lives. Since studies show that empathy is an important factor in leadership performance, the management literature is teeming with authors praising the virtue of empathy. Some even provide dubious accounts on how to fake empathy to become a more efficient leader.
Friends and coworkers often tell me how much they value my ability to see the world from their perspective. And this is the part of empathy that is absolutely beautiful and enriching.
The question is — where’s the fine line between the strength and the dark side of empathy? And how can a hyper-empathic person dissociate herself from its downsides?
How to turn it back into a strength
I found that the key is to gain an understanding of the difference between empathy and compassion.
Empathy is sharing someone else’s pain (or pleasure, but let’s focus on the negative case for now) and feeling it as if it was your own. Compassion means deeply caring about the person and their pain without associating oneself with it.
In a state of compassion, we are able to understand the emotions we pick up, but release them and focus on what needs to be done to help. So, if we are naturally inclined towards hyper-empathy and see someone suffering, how do we make the switch towards compassion?
I have found the following things to be helpful:
- Be aware of and constantly probe your feelings — where do they originate? Are they truly yours, or did you take on someone else’s feelings? (This may actually be the hardest step — it took quite a while of practice for me.)
- If meditation is something you like to do, take a deep breath, ground yourself, and clear your mind of thoughts first.
- Focus on being curious about the experience you are witnessing; instead of getting lost in emotions, try examining the situation from the outside. Let your curiosity guide you to an understanding of how you can help.
These steps can make it easier to then display compassion and warmth while staying in your own body and mind and taking the steps that are objectively necessary to help (sometimes, this can just mean being a good listener).
Looking at the bigger picture, I found it helpful to take care of my own needs first, and to put a lot of work into defining my own identity and self.
Today, the occasions where I have to take a step back just to realize I am feeling an unpleasant emotion that is not mine, or finding myself paralyzed by fear and unable to react constructively and help, have become much rarer. Now, I am grateful for being able to relate to other beings’ inner truth.
Empathy is a beautiful skill to have. Realizing its dangers has allowed me to appreciate and cultivate its bright side in a new and exciting way.
To me, it makes life so much more colorful by allowing me to deeply connect with other human beings. It just took a while to get to the depth of its downside, but the journey led me to a place where I’m now able to cherish it in all its nuances.