Is Empathy Your Greatest Strength and Greatest Weakness?

Here's how to manage your empathy so it's a strength rather than a curse.

Posted Jun 19, 2019

Kane Lynch, used with permission.
Source: Kane Lynch, used with permission.

In Unhealthy Helping: A Psychological Guide to Overcoming Codependence, Enabling, and Other Dysfunctional Giving, and in a previous post, I write about personality and helping. One thing I note about the “helpful personality” is that helpful people are empathic.

In short, readily taking the perspective of others and feeling other people’s distress makes you more likely to take responsibility for the welfare of others and act to help them. 

Are you an empathic, helpful person? Thank you. The people you care about, the people you work with, and even complete strangers, benefit from your helpful nature. The cooperation and helpfulness of people like you have contributed to human survival, social change, and productivity. Empathic people counter the more selfish and ruthless people that are also among us. No doubt about it, we need empathic people in this sometimes cold, hard world. 

But all that said, empathy doesn’t always motivate healthy helping. That’s because as an emotional experience, empathy is painful and we can be so motivated to reduce that pain that we help when we shouldn’t, or in ways that aren’t helpful. Empathy can lead to impulsive rescuing when rescuing isn’t the best thing to do. It can lead to unhealthy helping that enables poor performance or irresponsibility. It can lead to excessive self-sacrifice or helping in ways that compromise your integrity.

And, as I was recently reminded when dealing with students who wanted me to give them higher grades than they earned, our empathy can make setting and maintaining boundaries stressful and challenging. When students implored me to give them grades they didn’t earn because of the negative consequences they would experience if I didn’t, I felt terrible for them because I could see it from their perspective. This tempted me to “help” even though changing their grades would be unethical, among other problems. Despite my well-justified policies, I still had to work to manage my empathic response so it didn’t lead me into unhealthy helping

If you’re like me—an empathic person that easily experiences others’ distress—you know how hard it is to set boundaries around what you’ll do for others, and how hard it is when people “push” those boundaries. With that in mind, here are some strategies I use to make my empathy a strength in my interpersonal relationships, rather than a curse.

I don’t rush to rescue and fix. Empathic distress can be intense and your desire to quell it can lead to impulsive helping. But if there’s no immediate danger to another’s life or limb, I’ve learned to override my empathic impulse long enough to make a reasoned decision about whether my intervention is really best. I think about whether I can physically, emotionally, or financially afford to help and whether helping puts me at risk ethically or legally. I consider whether my help will enable another’s immaturity, addiction, or irresponsibility, and what giving now might commit me to later.

I remind myself that just because I feel empathy doesn’t necessarily mean I should take responsibility or need to take responsibility for fixing their situation. If I decide to help, I consider the type of help that would be most helpful, and most healthy, for all parties involved. I also remember that when many people tell me of their troubles, they’re just looking for emotional support and don’t want or expect me to fix them or their problem.

I ride out my boundary-setting ambivalence and override my empathy "spin." When I set a needed boundary my empathy sometimes leads me to question whether my boundary is fair or mean because I can see my boundary from the other person’s perspective. I feel the hardship or disappointment my “no” will cause and it makes me question myself. But I’m getting better at stopping this empathy spin by reminding myself why the boundary is needed and why giving in isn’t a good idea. This also motivates the assertiveness I need to vanquish the persistent smooth-talkers before they wear me down. Seeking support from friends or family that support my boundaries also helps me get through this uncomfortable period. (See “Four Ways to Set Boundaries.")

I'm becoming more assertive with the“takers” that persistently ignore and test my boundaries. Every once in a while I encounter a person that tries to use my empathy to manipulate me into relaxing my boundaries. I pay attention I start feeling manipulated into helping someone in ways that I don’t think are right, or when I start to feel resentment. I hold firm when it’s clear the other person has no empathy for me and my boundaries. I remind myself that they don’t have to accept my boundaries for me to have them. It’s up to me what I will and won’t do for someone else. I try to "walk my assertiveness talk" by following recommendations from my book “Unhealthy Helping.” 

I'm cultivating empathy for myself. Empathic people, especially ones that have “prosocial” values that emphasize other-centeredness and giving, can go too far in putting other people before themselves. They don’t treat themselves near as well as they treat others and they can overextend themselves emotionally, physically, or financially in service to others. I’m learning to give myself a little bit of that compassion I’m so quick to give others so I can set the helping boundaries I need to preserve my well-being without guilt. I work to counter the thoughts that can support my helping martyrdom.