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Empathy

Does Being Too Emotional Carry a Price?

Empathy brings costs, as well as benefits.

If we did not experience emotions, life might not be worth living. Of course, negative emotions also give rise to most of the pain we experience. People vary greatly in how emotional they are. Is being highly emotional a positive or a negative?

The Cost of Empathy

Empathy is central to our social experiences and being able to feel what others feel is arguably the central aspect of social relationships. Its absence in antisocial people makes for a difficult existence.

People who are highly social are more open to expressing emotion themselves and feel the emotions of others more keenly. Sociable individuals, who score high on extroversion, also score higher on empathy.

In the course of a conversation, people mimic each other's facial emotions. In doing so, they express empathy.

Interestingly, the mere process of changing emotional expression contributes to felt emotional states, and therefore increases empathy. This has clear relevance for actors whose occupation impinges directly on their emotional lives.

Conversely, people whose faces remain expressionless experience emotions less intensely all else being equal.

If the emotions with which we empathize are positive, we can feel happier which is one reason for cultivating friends. Conversely, a companion who always emphasizes the negative can lower our mood.

This is why empathy has cost, as well as benefits. Women's greater capacity for empathy might thus play a role in their higher incidence of clinical anxiety and depression.

Gender Differences in Empathy and Depression

Several lines of research indicate that women are more emotional than men. They report more intense emotions, are more engaged with people around them, form more vivid memories of emotional events, express more facial emotions, and experience greater empathy.

This sex difference begs for an evolutionary explanation. It is hard to evade the conclusion that women are more empathic, and more emotional in general because they play a greater role in caring for children even in the modern world of supposed gender equality.

Of course, the mere fact that feminine empathy has a plausible evolutionary explanation does not mean that it is biologically predetermined.

More likely, gender differences in empathy and emotionality are affected by social experiences. This view is supported by the fact that the divergence in empathy between males and females gets greater over time.

Whatever the causes of gender differences in emotionality, the downside is clear. Women are at a greater risk of anxiety disorders and depression.

This phenomenon can be readily explained in terms of a propensity to experience all emotions more intensely, specifically the negative ones of sadness and anxiety.

Some of this difference may reflect socialization experiences where male emotional expression is restrained and restricted, whereas there is not the same restriction on female emotionality, which facilitates empathic child-raising. Conversely, when males fail to express emotions, their capacity to experience normal emotions can get stunted.

This difference in emotionality is not peculiar to gender but crops up in different occupations. Among actors, their occupation requires them to express intense emotions at a possible price to their personal lives.

The Case of Actors

In addition to being more extroverted, professional actors score higher on empathy and, on anxiety.

No doubt, these traits are stable personality characteristics.

Even so, research evidence suggests that the occupation of expressing strong emotions can increase the intensity of emotions that a person experiences internally.

Whether this is a major factor in their lives is not clear but it may be. Actors manifest personality traits that set them up for tragedy in their emotional lives. For prominent actors, there is also an issue of leading their lives under the glare of unrelenting publicity that strains personal relationships.

Most actors also suffer from being poorly paid and having problems with economic instability. Many experience feelings of self-doubt and unworthiness.

For whatever reason, actor biographies are replete with personal tragedies including drug abuse, accidents, multiple divorces, anxiety, depression, and suicide. Actors may be uniquely exposed to the perils of negative emotionality as the indirect effect of perfecting their craft.

Being skilled at experiencing (and expressing) the emotions of other people is both a great gift and at times, a curse.

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