Are You Addicted to Empathy?

Consider alternatives to automatic engagement. It benefits all.

Posted Oct 17, 2013

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Empathy feels good in the moment, but it is not always the best thing in the long run. Sometimes, an authentic response is better for you and for the person you're trying to connect with. In today's culture, we are expected to empathize with things we don't really agree with. Empathy has become synonymous with “good.” The habit of automatic empathy is rarely questioned because it makes you look "bad." So I was pleased to find a fellow blogger questioning it, and we decided to write a joint blog on the subject.

Romanian Psychologist Lucia Grosaru described to me the crisis mentality in Bucharest as a result of recent small earthquakes. “You hear a lot of anxiety, but the earthquake risk is the same as it has always been,” Ms. Grosaru explains. This interested me because I am a resident of the earthquake-prone San Francisco Bay Area, and I too dislike jumping on anxiety bandwagons. So I asked Ms. Grosaru to elaborate. She said we are not obliged to empathize with other people’s expressions of anxiety. I asked her how that would work, since people are easily offended if we dismiss their feelings. Here is her advice for responding to what she calls "The Unreasonable Empathy request." Below is my view of why empathy is addictive, and a summary of Ms. Grosaru’s advice.

The official definition of empathy is that you are not obliged to agree with someone's feelings, but simply to make an effort to understand them. But what if you make an effort and simply do not agree?  We are often expected to agree anyway. That dilemma is our focus.

Like a drug, empathy gives you an immediate high, and by the time you see the long-term consequences you are hooked.
Empathy is like a drug because it stimulates your natural "happy" chemicals. You stimulate oxytocin, the “bonding hormone,” when you say “we are all in this together.” You stimulate dopamine, the brain’s predictor of rewards, when you say, “we will beat this dragon.” You stimulate serotonin by raising your stature as a "good" person. These good feelings wire the brain to seek more of whatever triggered them. Thus we seek more empathy.

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Here's a fast, easy way to get it: negativity. Someone says things are going to hell in a handbasket, and others agree. Everyone feels good, and everyone gets to blame their frustrations on external forces. This builds a negativity habit as we reinforce each other in the belief that we are in a handbasket of one sort or another. As the habit builds, you can end up agreeing with things you know are wrong.

The alternative to this automatic empathy is hard to grasp because it violates social norms. You have to keep reminding yourself that you have a choice. You are not required to empathize with other people's anxiety. Sometimes they are better off knowing your true feelings, and the positive reasons you do not share their negativity. This is the subject of my new book, Beyond Cynical: Transcend Your Mammalian Negativity. But here are some simple steps suggested by a European therapist who writes on the psychology of American entertainment media.

How to manage the "unreasonable empathy request"
In that moment when someone appeals to you for empathy but you do not authentically agree,  Ms. Grosaru’s suggests:

1. Acknowledge the appeal for help: “I want to help but I do not think that agreeing with you would be helpful.”

2. Provide a rational mirror: “I see this is troubling to you. I do not see it that way because...”

3. Clarify your goals: “My goal is to do what I see as useful, not to comply with every expectation others have of me.”

We are surrounded by the idea that we should not judge. But you lose your integrity if you express empathy for something you think is wrong. Empathy has value, but we need to make decisions about when it is valuable instead of automatically resorting to this feel-good fix. Empathy can tempt us to bond around negativity and rationalize our weaknesses instead of building our strengths. It's useful to have an alternative. My book Habits of a Happy Brain shows how a person can re-wire themselves for more happiness, and why we must do this for ourselves.