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The Pitfalls of Empathy

Be a more effective helper by avoiding these common empathetic tendencies.

Key points

  • Despite its benefits, empathy is also associated with potential pitfalls.
  • In a desperation to help, empathy can cloud judgment and result in enabling behavior.
  • Empathy can take a toll on an empath's emotional state.
Annie Spratt/Unsplash
Source: Annie Spratt/Unsplash

Empathy, the ability to emotionally understand and feel what others experience, has been identified as a critical skill in a variety of settings such as leadership, healthcare, and education.

The emphasis on the cultivation of empathy is understood. Caring about others benefits society. Empathy serves as a catalyst for altruistic behavior, which reinforces prosocial behavior and reduces human suffering. Without empathy, our world would collapse into a scary abyss where violence and dehumanization prevail.

In addition, empathy is therapeutic. Feeling seen and heard on a deep, emotional level is a healing experience.

Think about how much time we spend putting on a façade and projecting a persona of who we are. We often hide our thoughts and feelings from our closest friends and family members to shield them from the emotional pain we carry. Such secrecy paradoxically serves as fertile ground for painful emotional experiences to thrive and gain a deeper hold of us.

As a psychiatrist, I can attest to the therapeutic benefits of empathy. I have worked with countless people who benefited tremendously from having a safe space to express thoughts and feelings they had kept hidden for a lifetime. Empathy is an essential ingredient of the therapeutic process, the framework on which healing occurs.

However, empathy also comes with potential pitfalls. When untamed, empathy can cloud one's judgment as they strive to alleviate suffering.

Imagine an anguished parent who wants to save their adult child tangled in a web of substance use. In this common scenario, the child is running low on money because they have squandered a fortune on their substance use. Their addiction may also prevent them from holding a job and may have resulted in legal fines. In such a scenario, the child may ask their parent for financial assistance. Handing over money to the struggling child may seem like the empathetic thing to do. However, if the money is used to purchase more of the drug, then the parent has enabled their problematic behavior. As we can see, blind empathy can result in collateral damage.

In addition, empathy is inherently biased. Evidence shows that we are less likely to empathize with people who are from different racial and cultural groups than our own, merely by virtue of who they are and not based on anything they have done. Such bias only exacerbates the problematic prejudice that is wrecking our society.

Finally, empathy can have a negative impact on an empath’s emotional state. Overidentifying with one’s suffering can lead to emotional exhaustion and feelings of helplessness.

It takes great effort and intention to understand someone on an emotional level and not have it impact other parts of your life. From personal experience, I have found myself emotionally depleted at the end of a hectic workday with limited emotional reserves for loved ones at home.

Pointing out the pitfalls of empathy is not intended to start a crusade against this virtue, which is essential for healing and connection. However, when left unchecked, empathy can negatively impact both the empath and its recipients.

Here are ways to utilize empathy more effectively and mitigate its downsides.

  1. Empathy must be accompanied by boundaries. Without boundaries, empathy can serve as a catalyst for enabling behavior through which you inadvertently reinforce one's unhealthy and destructive habits. This only hurts those you are trying to help. Setting boundaries is essential to ensure empathy does not cloud your judgment as you look for ways to help others.
  2. Empathy must also be accompanied by some action. It is not enough to empathize with one’s suffering. You also need to take some action to alleviate it. As an example, our society is filled with discrimination based on one’s gender, race and ethnicity. It is not sufficient to empathize with one who faces discrimination. It is essential that we take action to eliminate all forms of discrimination. On a personal level, it would be a disservice if my efforts to help patients were limited to empathy and did not include any evidence-based psychiatric and psychological interventions to alleviate their suffering.
  3. Accept your limits when helping others. I have worked with people who were paralyzed into nihilistic inaction because, on a grand scale, they felt their contributions were a drop in the ocean compared to the collective suffering in the world. In such scenarios, I remind people that every bit of help matters. Your efforts are meaningful to someone, even for a brief moment. Volunteering at a local food bank does not eradicate world hunger but it provides valuable relief to those in dire need.
  4. Prioritize your health. Finally, one cannot consistently practice empathy without prioritizing self-care. Identifying with one’s emotions can put you in vulnerable emotional states. It is imperative that you take time to recharge your batteries and replenish yourself in order to continue to help others.
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