Empathy Is Not a Weakness

Empathy requires deep insights and balanced emotions, which take great strength.

Posted Aug 02, 2020

E. A. Segal
Source: E. A. Segal

Where did this idea of empathy as a weakness come from? Is it because empathy involves emotions, which are often considered a “soft” side of human behavior?

There seems to be a defense against empathy based on this notion. The books Against Empathy and The Dark Sides of Empathy 1 certainly do not help (as noted in an earlier post). In those books, the authors equate emotional contagion, or extreme emotionalism with empathy. This thinking is often adopted by people in power who want to look strong and appear in control. However, empathy is not simply having emotions. It goes far beyond that.

Empathy is the ability to share the feelings of others, understand what those feelings may mean, and doing so with enough self-reflection to remain emotionally balanced. Empathy requires that we can clearly differentiate between our own feelings and those of others. The balance of empathy takes strength, it is a skill and ability of those who are centered and strong. 

The Strength to Step Outside Ourselves

One of the most challenging aspects of empathy is to step out of our own private world. Empathy is the opposite of self-absorption and narcissism. Of course, we all want to be safe and secure, so we need to be able to take care of ourselves. Our survival can and should have a self-focus. But self-focus alone does not build communities, nor even smaller groups and families.

To step into the shoes of others takes strength; it takes the ability and willingness to set our own needs aside to allow us to think about others. While our default mode for survival may be self-focus, empathy gives us the opportunity to expand our world to include others in meaningful ways. The work of empathy is to deeply recognize others.

Be Strong

What are the strengths needed for empathy? We need the ability to set boundaries, the training to balance our own emotions, and the skills to gain insight into the context and the conditions of others. These are abilities that do not come automatically to us. We need to learn to be empathic. And like with all skills, the learning takes time, practice, and the commitment to keep at it. The discipline of taking time, practicing, and staying with it takes strength.

Empathy includes emotional strength,2 which involves feeling deeply, opening ourselves to being emotionally responsive, being willing to be vulnerable, and then going beyond just thinking about emotions to acting upon them. This means that to be empathic is to be strong enough to risk sharing feelings with other people, even people whom we do not know. 

Work on Your Empathy

Building our empathy can be likened to athletes who practice their skills so that their actions are second-nature to them. Stepping into the lives of others takes action. Waiting for the urge to come to us will not deepen our empathic understanding. We need to:

  • Set good boundaries between ourselves and others so that we can distinguish between our feelings and those of others. We are programmed to mirror or imitate others, so we really do feel their emotions as if they are our own. Clarifying that we are feeling emotions but that they do not originate with us helps to keep strong boundaries.
  • Maintain balance while experiencing the emotions of others. Regulating our feelings allows us to think clearly rather than become overwhelmed. This ability takes power in order to control how our emotions affect us.
  • Develop awareness of our surroundings to gain insight into context. Such awareness is not done with a glance, rather it takes attention to details, it requires sustained focus.
  • Concentrate on what the feelings of others mean when walking in their shoes. Do not impose your own views; rather imagine what it is really like to be the other person, see the world through their eyes as if you were them.

Empathy is not easy. It takes fortitude to have solid boundaries, balanced emotions, keen awareness of our surroundings, and sufficient concentration to see the world through the eyes of others. It takes strength.

References

1. Paul Bloom (2016), Against Empathy, Harper Collins Publishers, and Fritz Breithaupt (2019), The Dark Sides of Empathy, Cornell University Press. 

2. Sharon Faye & Joel Hopper (2018). Emotional strength: A response type, response disposition and organizing principle for emotion experience. New Ideas in Psychology, 50, pp. 6-20.