5 Dangers of Empathy: How Can Empathy Hurt You Bad

empathy hurts

Can empathy be bad? Are there negative effects of empathy? Does too much empathy hurt you?

Yes, to all of them.

So, are you an empath (a person high on empathy, or highly empathic) who thinks you are burning yourself out? Beware, your empathy could be the cause of your burnout.

So, does empathy have a dark side we don’t know of? Read on to learn what science says.

Empathy: What Do We Mean By It

Before we dive into the dark side of empathy, let’s take a quick glance at how we use the word empathy 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.” Another, though quite a jaded one, could be this: “I know exactly where your shoe pinches.

Of course, ‘exactly’ is an overstatement.

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 vicariously experience and to share the emotions, ideas, or opinions of someone else.
  • Empathy is the ability to tune into and share another’s emotions from their perspective.

Can Empathy Hurt Us

Empathy is the ability to feel and imagine another person’s emotions and thoughts. But is it always beneficial?

Is being empathetic good or bad?

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.

But empathy has a few dark downsides. There are certain negatives about empathy we often do not care to take into account. We think by being moved by the tragedy and trauma of others, we are being helpful by showing our empathetic response. Really? Always?

Instead, can it be really that, as James Dawes says,

We borrow from the tragedy of others to make our empty days feel purposeful and high-stakes. We are emotional parasites.

How does empathy 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 due to chronic activation of the stress hormone cortisol.

Is too much empathy a bad thing?

Yes. In scientific literature, having too much empathy is called hyper-empathy or borderline empathy. In common language, they are known as empaths.

People with this cannot regulate their high levels of empathy in a healthy way, and often fall into “empathy traps” and become exploitable victims of gaslighting and manipulation.

Can empathy be dangerous?

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

5 Ways Empathy Can Turn Out Bad, And Hurt You Hard

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

1. Empathy Can Make You 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, of late, he had been giving away most of his salary money to beggars and 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 guilt, in 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.

pathological empathy

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.

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

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

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

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 that the psychopaths drill into their victims the notion that the victims themselves are to blame for their misfortune. This “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 mental peace and balance, of their chosen targets.

empathy psychopath blame

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 gauze 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.

The reason being, empathy is not curative, as love is. Love can make any relationship more positive, whether it is in good shape or terrible shape. Empathy does not have this always-on healing effect.

Love can cure. Empathy cannot.

empathy causes faster breakup

If you can’t love yourself, you can’t love others. Love begins with you! Learn why and how to love yourself without guilt.

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 does not cure, as love does. Love can make any relationship more positive. Not empathy. Click To Tweet

4. Empathy Can Exhaust And Tire You 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 the 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 marked by physical and emotional exhaustion and a great decrease in the ability to empathize. Also known as the “cost of caring” for others in pain, physical or emotional.

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, PhD.

5. Empathy Can Make You Angry

We usually believe that empathy and aggression are in 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 has a ‘poker-face’ and a fixed gaze.

He is not doing anything. That is, anything else than staring at 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, it enrages you as 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 that 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 other 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 due to his baleful expressions — because 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.

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

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.

Anger And Aggression

Anger is a survival response to —

  • an approaching threat,
  • a frustrating situation,
  • a social provocation.

Aggression is behavior aimed at harming or injuring another living being when being in anger.

Both have a neurological basis. Human fMRI studies point out that the amygdala, hypothalamus, and periaqueductal gray areas of the brain are stimulated when we are in anger and aggression.

While at it, we might mention frustration occurs when you act expecting an reward but do not receive the reward.

Can Sympathy Also Be Bad

Are sympathy and empathy different? Can sympathy too be bad?

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 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

Final Words

Indeed, empathy can be dark, dangerous, unhealthy. Paul Bloom, a Canadian American psychologist, and 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:

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

Want to know some highly interesting facts on empathy? Read this: 5 Scientists Tell Us Why Is Empathy Important For Humanity.

FAQ

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 – This is understanding and predicting the thoughts of another person by imagining ourselves in their situation. Also called ‘perspective taking.’ You think in this.
2. 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. You feel in this.
3. 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. You act in this.

Can empathy be dangerous?

Yes, empathy can be dangerous and hurtful. It can make one go bankrupt via empathy guilt and pathological altruism. It can make a psychopath read one’s mind and understand how to torture them so they suffer the most. It can break relationships faster. It can make a caregiver exhausted. It can make one angry and hateful.

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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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