Is It Possible to Be Too Empathetic?

Caring about others is kind and right. But to stay on the healthy side of this emotion, apply some perspective.

Posted in , Jun 27, 2019

Too much empathy?

Empathy—the ability to see things from another’s perspective and actually imagine and feel what others might be going through. What could be wrong with that?

While empathy is an unquestionable part of walking a positive path through life, enabling us to be kind to others and foster lasting relationships, professor of humanities Fritz Breithaupt says empathy also has “a dark side.” 

"Empathy is a riddle,” Breithaupt recently told NPR. While it can help us cultivate positive and kind habits, it can also motivate dysfunctional relationship patterns and self-serving behaviors.

On the positive side, Breithaupt describes the benefits of healthy empathy. He says, “Beings with empathy understand that there are all these different minds around [that] have different experiences and different feelings. They can participate in them. Someone with empathy lives more than one life. Of course, sometimes that means that you have to carry the suffering of others, but in many cases their joy becomes your joy. So it's a richer, much more complex life.”

But he also refers to a more toxic form of empathy called “vampiristic empathy,” in which in the process of feeling on behalf of others, an empathetic person actually steers the relationship in a self-serving direction, in which an empathetic person feels more proud of their own heroics than compassionate for the experiences of others.

“Humans are very quick to take sides,” Breithaupt said. “And when you take one side, you take the perspective of that side. You can see the painful parts of that perspective and empathize with them, and that empathy can fuel seeing the other side as darker and darker or more dubious.”

This shouldn’t lead us to abandon the pursuit of healthy empathy. Instead, understanding the full complexity of the emotion can help us to check in with ourselves to make sure our efforts are truly compassionate and directed at the people in our lives who we are deserving of our empathy. 

As Breithaupt puts it, “We can learn to use empathy in a somewhat controlled way. We can learn when to block it, when to not allow empathy to be manipulated and when to fully turn it on.”

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