Can empathy be dangerous? Yes, it can be dangerous. Empathy can sometimes hurt you bad.
But before we dive into that dark space, let’s take a quick glance at how we use it in our daily speech. If you were to explain empathy in a simple expression, it could well be this: “I know exactly how you feel.” Of course, ‘exactly’ would be an overstatement. Another, though quite a jaded one, could be this: “I know where your shoe pinches.”
Types of Empathy
Empathy has been said to be of three types, as proposed by Paul Ekman, a pioneer in the field of emotions and micro-expressions:
- Cognitive Empathy– This is understanding and predicting the thoughts of another person by imagining ourselves in their situation. Also called ‘perspective taking’.
- Emotional Empathy– This is feeling with emotions similar to the other person, or feeling what the other person feels. In this, there is always a sharing of feelings – at least at a basic level.
- Compassionate Empathy– This is making efforts to help out of a desire to respond after having understood the other person’s condition. This is about taking responsive action.
Now, let’s go into how empathy can hurt you in five ways:
1. Empathy Can Kill Relationships Faster
Since empathy is more about understanding, so, if in a relationship that is in a distressed state (‘on the rocks’), a partner is able to accurately gauze what’s going on in their companion’s mind, this can lead faster to the end of the relationship. As that person can accurately predict if their partner is feeling aloof, distressed, bitter, or revengeful.
The reason being, empathy is not curative, as love is. Love can make any relationship more positive, whether it is in a good shape or bad shape. Empathy does not have this always-on healing effect.
2. Empathy Can Make You Sad And Broke
When people feel empathy at seeing other people in distress, and feel guilty that they are somehow responsible for that person’s troubles, they are said to have developed an empathy-based guilt. The empathy-based guilt can show up as survivor guilt, in which the person believes that their happiness and success has come at the cost of others’ unhappiness and failures.
Since they falsely believe that they are the cause of distress, they also start to believe (again falsely) that they can relieve the distress. This can lead to giving away of one’s possessions, and being broke and bankrupt down to the last penny in the hope that it will cure other’s misfortunes. This condition is called pathological altruism.
Psychologist Lynn O’Connor has suggested that empathy-based guilt can be the harbinger of later-life depression. Depressed patients are known to show signs of submissive behavior, empathic distress and survivor guilt. And, mildly depressed people have been found to show the highest levels of empathy.
3. Empathy Can Be Dangerous and Fatal
It has been traditionally understood that psychopaths are incapable of empathy, remorse or guilt. But it not all true.
Psychopaths often have exceptional ability to predict and read your thoughts. They can cognitively empathize with you. In 2013, neuroscientist Christian Keysers examined the fMRI brain scans of 18 psychopaths and found that when asked to empathize, they showed normal levels of empathy.
Psychopaths are known to instill into their victims the notion that they themselves are to blame for their misfortune. This manipulativeness is almost an exclusive hallmark of psychopaths. Now, if you look deep, this quality of theirs is almost impossible if they had no capability to empathize.
4. Empathy Can Make You Angry
Jesper Juul, the Danish family therapist, has called aggression and empathy to be “existential twins”. While many therapists have suggested based on evidences that empathy may prevent angry outbursts, there is at least one instance when it does the opposite.
Empathy can make you angry, very angry indeed, if you perceive that a person is threatening your loved ones. But how can your empathy protect the ones you love?
Imagine it’s a summer Sunday and you are at a club pool with your family. Sometime into the water, you spot a thick-built man in a Hawaiian shirt standing at a corner. He has a ‘poker-face’ and a fixed gaze. He isn’t doing anything. That is, anything else than staring at your your pre-teen daughter taking her swimming lessons. Even before you have taken proper note of him, you had started to get angry. And in a flash, you’re enraged as hell. You move in to shield your daughter from his gaze.
Why? Because you instinctively understood what could be going on through that guy’s head, and for all the right and wrong reasons you got yourself angry. That was empathy making you angered.
Caring for a person you love can and does make you angry when you understand there is a threat to them. Because you foresee the pain and distress that other person might be causing your loved one. Since it is a threat to your family’s survival, shoring up your aggressive resources is a natural reaction.
Note here that you didn’t get angry because you perceived the man to be a threat due to his baleful expressions – because he didn’t show any. He was simply standing there ‘poker-faced’, expressionless. There is no way you could have read a threat from his face or body language. You were doing it by empathy. You were doing it by standing inside his identity and reading what harm he could possibly do.
5. The Curious Case Of Empathy Fatigue
Mark Stebnicki is a rehabilitation and trauma counselor, and author of Empathy Fatigue: Healing the Mind, Body, and Spirit of Professional Counselors.
Stebnicki coined the phrase ‘Empathy fatigue‘ to mean a state of extreme exhaustion that causes the mental health counselor to lose their resiliency, coping and empathic abilities, as a result of being continually exposed to “their clients’ life stories of chronic illness, disability, trauma, grief and loss”. It is a term related to compassion fatigue.
Empathy fatigue appears to be a common experience among “high touch” professionals from fields as teaching, journalism, nursing, medicine, law, and other settings where there is a high degree of work-related stress.
Recently, there was a short animation featuring why Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University, thinks empathy is a bad thing for us. He argues that we need less empathy, not more.
The Plight of Sympathy
We couldn’t end this one without a few words on sympathy! If you thought sympathy had a meaning different from empathy, you were right! Empathy is more about understanding, while sympathy is more about feeling.
Sympathy is sharing your emotions in a sad moment – but without any prior need to understand their condition.
Sympathy originally meant a feeling of compassion towards another. It meant crying together with your dejected friend on her front porch, or swearing together at a crummy boss with your rejected buddy.
These days, however, sympathy can often mean (pun intended!) simply declaring your intentions to feel sadness at another’s plight. How often we hear the heartless, “Please accept our heartfelt sympathies at your loss”?
What a fall from its hallowed status of classic inheritance – at the cost of empathy!
Here’s a TEDx video on empathy by Dr. Helen Riess – an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She directs the Empathy & Relational Science Program, conducting research on the neuroscience of emotions and empathy, and is Co-Founder, Chief Scientist and Chairman of Empathetics, LLC.
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