Can empathy be dangerous? Can it hurt you?

We borrow from the tragedy of others to make our empty days feel purposeful and high-stakes. We are emotional parasites. — James Dawes Click To Tweet

Can empathy be bad? Can too much empathy hurt you? Does empathy have a dark side we don’t know of? Are there negative effects of empathy? Yes, to all of them.

Can empathy be dangerous?

Yes, empathy can be dangerous and hurtful. It can make one go bankrupt via “empathy guilt” and “pathological altruism.” Empathy can make a psychopath read a victim’s mind and understand how to torture them so that they suffer the most. It can break relationships faster. Too much empathy can exhaust the caregivers. Empathy can also make one angry, hateful, and aggressive.

How can empathy negatively affect a person?

  • Empathy can affect a person negatively by creating long-term and short-term stress.
  • In a study published in Health Psychology, the researchers found the more empathic the parent, the more likely it was they experienced chronic low-grade inflammation.
  • In another study, researchers found students who put themselves in the other’s shoes had higher “fight-or-flight” responses. The study authors felt this was because of chronic activation of the stress hormone cortisol.
  • Too much empathy can be bad too. In scientific literature, having too much empathy is called hyper-empathy or borderline empathy. In common language, we know them as empaths.
  • These hyper-empathic persons cannot regulate their high levels of empathy in a healthy way. They often fall into “empathy traps” and become exploitable victims of gaslighting and manipulation. So, if are you an empath it could cause you burnout.
empathy hurts

5 Ways Empathy Can Hurt You Hard

Here are the negative effects of empathy—the five ways empathy can hurt:

1. Empathy can make one sad and broke

Years back, I had a patient whose family brought him in with this strange form of empathy. His family—wife, children, and brother—informed me that of late, he had been giving away most of his salary money to the beggars and the homeless.

By the time they found out, they discovered he had already donated quite a few things of value from their home. They also got to know from one of his colleagues about his getting caught at the check-out gate with office articles on his person. He wanted to donate them to a homeless beggar.

When people feel empathy at seeing other people in distress and feel guilty that they are somehow responsible for that person’s troubles, the psychologists say them to have developed empathy-based guilt.

The empathy-based guilt can show up as survivor guiltin which the person believes their happiness and success has come at the cost of unhappiness and failures of others.

Since they falsely believe they are the cause of others’ distress, they also create false beliefs in their minds that they can relieve their suffering. This mostly leads to their giving away of possessions and often ending up broke and bankrupt down to the last penny. All the while, they live hoping it will cure the other people’s misfortunes.

This condition is 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 empathic distress, survivor guilt, and submissive behavior.

Studies show the mildly depressed people show the highest levels of empathy. Moreover, the empathic reaction in depressed persons often leads to great distress because they unrealistically blame themselves for the pain felt by others.

pathological empathy
Mildly depressed people have been found by research to show the highest levels of empathy. Click To Tweet

2. Empathy can be dangerous and fatal

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The traditional way to explain psychopaths is they are incapable of empathy, remorse, or guilt. But it is not all true.

Psychopaths often have the exceptional ability to predict and read your thoughts.

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They can cognitively empathize with you. In 2013, neuroscientist Christian Keysers, who wrote the excellent book The Empathic Brain, examined the fMRI brain scans of 18 psychopaths. He found, when asked to empathize, the psychopaths showed normal levels of empathy.

We know the psychopaths are skilled at drilling into their victims the notion that the victims themselves are to blame for their misfortune (brought about by the psychopath).

The “bossy” nature of manipulativeness is almost an exclusive hallmark of psychopaths.

Now, if you look deep, this quality of theirs would be almost impossible if they could not empathize with their victims.

Psychopaths are master manipulators and often use their excellent empathetic skills for deceiving and hurting, violating the rights and boundaries, destroying the mental peace and balance, of their chosen targets.

So, if a dominant person in your life criticizes you scathingly in front of others, and then tells you it is you who was responsible for their bad behavior, know for sure the person has psychopathic traits.

When asked to empathize, the #psychopaths show normal levels of #empathy. They can read and predict your thoughts rather too well. Click To Tweet

3. Empathy can kill relationships faster

There is an unhealthy effect of empathy you may not know. Having too much empathy can kill your relationships.

Since empathy is more about understanding, so if a couple is into a distressed relationship (‘on the rocks’), one partner can accurately gauge what is going on in their companion’s mind.

This accuracy of mind-reading, called cognitive empathy, 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.

Empathy is not curative, as love is. Love can cure but empathy cannot.

Love can make any relationship more positive, whether it is going well or is in a precipitous state. Empathy does not have this always-on healing effect.

People with hyper-empathy are highly sensitive to social stimuli but cannot process these well. They often deflect their own feelings and have negative expectations from their interactions.

They also have a reduced ability to make decisions that would serve their best interest. They also lose a grip on their internal resources to give their best to the key people in their lives.

In time, they give in to physical and psychological exhaustion to maintain or nurture a relationship.

Also, the overly empathetic people expose themselves as easy victims of psychopaths and narcissists in their relationships.

empathy causes faster breakup
Empathy does not cure, as love does. Love can make a relationship more positive; but not empathy. Click To Tweet

Love begins with you! If you can’t love yourself, you can’t quite love others. Want some proof? Read this: Why love yourself first (without guilt)?

4. Empathy can exhaust and tire one out

Mark Stebnicki is a rehabilitation and trauma counselor and author of Empathy Fatigue.

Stebnicki coined the phrase empathy fatigue to mean a state of extreme exhaustion that causes mental health counselor to lose their resiliency, coping, and empathic abilities. It usually happens because 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. Compassion fatigue is physical and emotional exhaustion, and a great decrease in the ability to empathize, with long-term caregivers. Also known as the “cost of caring” for others in pain, physical or emotional.

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You could say a line of work that requires a high level of empathy from you can cause you empathy fatigue, and lead to burnout. Burnout can cause depression and anxiety, extreme physical and emotional exhaustion, and dreading to go to work.

Empathy fatigue appears to be quite a common experience among “high touch” professionals from fields as teaching, journalism, nursing, medicine, law, and other settings where there is high work-related stress.

Empathy-exhausts-healthcare-professionals
Doctors feel the distress of their patients

A tool to find out if one is experiencing empathy fatigue or compassion fatigue is the free Professional Quality of Life scale developed by psychologist Beth Hudnall Stamm, Ph.D.

5. Empathy can make one angry and aggressive

We usually believe that empathy and aggression are in an inverse relationship. Reduced empathy increases the risk of someone becoming irritable and aggressive, while more empathy tends to make a person get less angry.

Jesper Juul, the Danish family therapist, has called aggression and empathy to be “existential twins”. While many therapists have suggested, based on evidence, that empathy may prevent angry outbursts, there is at least one instance when it does the opposite.

So empathy, when it is of the cognitive type, can make you angry.

But how can your empathy protect your loved ones if it makes you angry?

Imagine it is a summer Sunday and you are at a club pool with your family. Some time into the water, you spot a thick-built man in a Hawaiian shirt standing at a corner. He stands poker-faced with a fixed gaze.

He is not doing anything. That is, anything else other than staring at your preteen daughter taking her swimming lessons. Even before you have taken proper note of him, you had started to get angry.


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And in a flash, it enrages you like hell. You move in to shield your daughter from his gaze. Why?

Because you instinctively understood what could go on through that guy’s head, and for all the right reasons, you got yourself angry. That was empathy making you angered.

So, you see, empathy can make you angry, very angry indeed, if you perceive a person is threatening your loved ones.

Caring for a person you love can make you angry when you understand there is a threat to them. Because you foresee the pain and distress that another person might cause your loved one. Since it is a threat to your family’s survival, shoring up your aggressive resources is a natural reaction.

Note here: you did not get angry because you perceived the man to be a threat because of his baleful expressions—he did not show any. He was merely 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 do.

Another related way empathy can hurt is when strong empathic connections with our family, social circle, or racial group may lead us to act in hatred or aggression towards those we perceive as a threat.

Empathy can make you angry if you perceive a person is threatening your loved ones. Click To Tweet

[By the way, anger differs from aggressionAnger is a survival response to an approaching threat, a frustrating situation, or a social provocation. Aggression is behavior aimed at harming or injuring another living being when being in anger. Brain scan studies show the same areas of the brain (amygdala, hypothalamus, and periaqueductal gray) get stimulated when we are in anger or aggression. While at it, we might mention frustration occurs when you act expecting a reward but don’t receive it.]


Paul Bloom, a Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University, thinks empathy is a bad thing for us. He argues we need less empathy, not more.

Here below is  Paul Bloom, author of How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like, telling us why empathy is not the best way to care for others:

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Why Empathy Is Not the Best Way to Care | Paul Bloom | Big Think

Can Sympathy Also Be Bad

Are sympathy and empathy different from each other? Can sympathy be bad too?

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. While sympathy is sharing your emotions in a sad moment – but with no 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 do 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!

So sympathy is not bad. But we often mistakenly perceive it as bad.

Sympathy is sharing your emotions in a sad moment – but without any need to understand them. Click To Tweet

Empathy: A Few Definitions

If you were to explain empathy in a simple expression, it could well be this: “I know exactly how you feel.“ Another, though quite a jaded one, could be this: “I know exactly where your shoe pinches.“ Of course, ‘exactly’ is an overstatement.

Empathy is the ability to feel and imagine another person’s emotions and thoughts. Empathy gives meaning to our lives and our relationships. It plays a crucial role to bring people together. It is a vital ingredient to build intimacy in our relationships. Empathy is good in those senses.

Here are a few ways to define empathy:

  • Empathy is the capacity to understand what the other person is experiencing from their situation.
  • Empathy is the capability to experience vicariously and share the emotions, ideas, or opinions of someone else.
  • Empathy is the ability to tune into and share another’s emotions from their perspective.

Final Words

Indeed, empathy can be dark, dangerous, and ominous.

We often do not care to consider these negative sides of empathy. We think we are helpful when we show our empathy and get moved by the tragedy and trauma of others. But it’s not always as we think it is. Empathy is not always beneficial to the person we are empathizing with.

Want to find out more on empathy? Then check this out: Understanding Empathy (The Easy Way)!

FAQs

  • What are the 3 types of empathy?

    Empathy can be of three types Cognitive, Emotional, or Compassionate, as classified and proposed by Paul Ekman, a pioneer in the field of emotions and micro-expressions:
    1. Cognitive Empathy – Understanding and predicting the thoughts of another person by imagining ourselves in their situation. Also called ‘perspective taking.’ This involves thinking.
    2. Emotional Empathy – 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. This involves feeling.
    3. Compassionate Empathy – Making efforts to help out of a desire to respond after having understood the other person’s condition. This is about taking responsive action. This involves acting.

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy – a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related medical topics.


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