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

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

Can empathy be dangerous?

Yes, empathy can be dangerous and harmful. It can bankrupt people through “empathy guilt” and “pathological altruism.”

Empathy can help a narcissist read a victim’s mind and figure out how to torture them the most.

It can damage relationships faster, exhaust caregivers, and make one angry, bitter, and aggressive.

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 you sad and broke (empathy-based guilt).

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 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 homeless people.

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

Empathy-based guilt can show up as survivor guiltin which the person believes their happiness and success have come at the cost of the 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 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 that 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.

2. Empathy can be dangerous and fatal to others (cognitive empathy).

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

Psychopathy is now officially called Antisocial Personality Disorder or ASPD.

Antisocial personality disorder is a persistently flawed, deep-rooted, unethical way of thinking that leads to exploitative, abnormal, and criminal behavior carried out without remorse.

Psychopathy is a cluster-B disorder, which also includes borderline, narcissistic, and histrionic personality disorders.

Psychopaths and narcissists often have the exceptional ability to predict and read your thoughts This type of empathy is called cognitive empathy.

They can cognitively empathize with you, that is understand what you are thinking and feeling.

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 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, and 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.

3. Too much empathy can kill relationships faster (hyper-empathy).

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 in 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 (who are often called empaths by the public) 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, 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.

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 weaken and exhaust you (empathy fatigue).

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 counselors to lose their resiliency, coping, and empathic abilities.

It usually happens because of “being continually exposed to their client’s 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.

It’s also known as the “cost of caring” for others in pain, physical or emotional.

Any line of work that requires a high level of empathy, can cause a person to develop empathy fatigue, and lead to burnout.

Burnout, in turn, can cause depression and anxiety, extreme physical and emotional exhaustion, and a dread of going to work.

Empathy fatigue appears to be quite a common experience among “high touch” professionals from fields such 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 you angry and aggressive (empathetic aggression).

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 that, based on evidence, that empathy may prevent angry outbursts, there is at least one instance when it does the opposite.

So empathy can make you angry. But how?

Imagine yourself and your family in a club pool on a summer Sunday.

A tall, muscular man wearing a Hawaiian shirt is standing in a corner some distance out into the water. He has a fixed gaze and a poker face.

He is not acting in any way. That is, anything other than gazing at your preteen daughter as she practices swimming.

You had begun to get upset even before you had taken proper note of him. And in a flash, you become angry like hell.

You move in to block his view of your daughter. Why?

You intuitively sensed what might have been going through that guy’s mind, and for all the right reasons, you were enraged.

That was empathy making you angry.

Empathy Can Be Dangerous
Empathy Can Be Dangerous

Caring for a person you love can make you angry when you read there is a threat to them.

You foresee the pain and distress the 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.

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

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 with 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 toward those we perceive as a threat.

By the way, anger differs from aggression.

  • Anger 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.
  • Frustration occurs when you act expecting a reward but don’t receive it.

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

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:

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

What is empathy, actually?

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 in bringing people together. It is a vital ingredient for building 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 in 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.

How can empathy affect you negatively?

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.

Empaths or hyper-empathic persons have a difficult time regulating their high levels of empathy. They often fall into “empathy traps,” becoming exploitable victims of gaslighting and manipulation. So, if are you an empath, you may frequently experience mental exhaustion or burnout.

Can Sympathy Also Be Bad

Sympathy and empathy — are they different from each other? Can sympathy be bad too?

We couldn’t end this one without a few words on this misunderstood human quality — 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 with no prior need to understand the other person’s 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.

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.

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.

• • •

Understanding Empathy (The Easy Way).

• • •

Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy — medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental well-being, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).


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