Empathy means the ability to ‘feel with’ other people, to sense what they’re experiencing. It means moving beyond self-centredness and entering the mind-space of others. And in this respect, I believe empathy is one of the most important and beneficial human qualities.
Empathy negates cruelty and exploitation. It is very difficult to harm another person if you can sense the suffering that you may be causing them. You recoil from their experience of suffering in the same way that you recoil from your own suffering. In fact, normally one feels a strong impulse to relieve their suffering. In this way, empathy is the root of most of the behaviour that we associate with “goodness.” It’s the root of compassion and altruism, self-sacrifice, and charity.
But is it possible to have too much empathy? If we ‘feel with’ other people, is it possible for us to become swamped by their feelings, especially if they are experiencing negative states?
This is a very real problem, which many of us experience from time to time. It might be termed ‘negative empathy’: a state of being so sensitive to other people’s experiences that we become overwhelmed by their suffering, to the point where we begin to suffer ourselves. Negative empathy is an extreme form of ‘emotional contagion,’ in which the contagion becomes so intense that our emotional and psychological health is seriously impaired.
I remember experiencing this state strongly when I traveled around India about 25 years ago. The poverty and squalor in the big cities shocked me. I saw thousands of malnourished children, innumerable homeless people, many cases of diseases like leprosy and rickets which were practically unknown in the affluent Western world, countless beggars and people who were seriously ill or unconscious (or possibly even dead) just lying on the street … Other Western travelers I encountered didn’t seem to be affected, but seeing so much hardship and suffering depressed me deeply. I couldn’t relax or sleep properly, and felt a strong sense of guilt, that I was an affluent Westerner who was eavesdropping on their struggle for survival.
You could make an analogy here with perception. Generally it’s a positive experience when our perceptions become more intense. The world around us becomes more vivid and beautiful. But in certain situations, it’s possible for us to perceive too much, and to be overwhelmed with a giant bombardment of sensory impressions. This is sometimes reported by people who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia - that they perceive things so intensely and in so much detail that it becomes almost threatening, and they find it impossible to concentrate on practical tasks, or to think clearly. Negative empathy is like this, but in terms of feeling.
How to Deal With Negative Empathy
But does this mean that we should regulate and ration our empathy, or even withhold it? Some people do take this approach, especially those who have been emotionally wounded earlier in their lives. Because of the risk of negative empathy, they close themselves off from other people’s suffering, build an armour around themselves, to minimise the risk of further emotional damage.
But as I’ve said, empathy is one of human beings’ most precious and noble capacities, so it would be absurd for us to suppress it. And there should be no need for us to suppress it, if we take the right approach. It is not inevitable that other people’s suffering should disturb us. It is possible for us to be wholly and deeply empathic, without suffering any potential negative effects.
The most important thing is not to ‘latch on’ to other people’s suffering, or to identify with it. We should allow other people’s suffering to flow through us like a river, without clinging to it, and creating stories relating to it. We can be affected by it at the moment we experience it, and respond to it in the appropriate way (hopefully through altruism) but then allow it to pass through.
This is quite difficult to do, but it’s not dissimilar to how we should ideally respond to our own experience. When we experience emotional pain as individuals, we often make the mistake of latching on to it. For example, if we have an experience which is embarrassing or disappointing, we often ruminate over it for a long time afterwards. And as we ruminate, the experience wounds us more deeply, and we build up more resentment and anger. But usually, if we don't latch on to the experience, the emotional damage heals quite quickly. It is latching on to and identifying with the experience which brings most of the pain.
And this applies to other people’s sufferings too. It’s important for us to maintain a place of stability, where we can ‘feel with’ other people, without being disturbed by their suffering. This doesn’t mean being detached or aloof. It means being intimately involved in other people’s lives, but at the same time not immersed in them.
And significantly, this actually makes us much more capable of responding effectively to other people’s suffering. Ideally, empathy leads to altruism—benevolent acts that help to alleviate the suffering of others. But negative empathy can create such a state of discord and confusion that we may not be able to act in this way.
So to ‘feel with’ does not necessarily mean to ‘suffer with’ others. And the less we suffer ourselves, the better we are able to respond to suffering.
I am a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, UK. I am the author of Back to Sanity. Learn more at www.stevenmtaylor.com.