The Pitfalls of Empathy

Empathy too much

What is the difference between empathy and sympathy?

You might have heard the term empathy in conjunction with sympathy and might be thinking ummm… what is the difference?

Well to explain briefly, sympathy is understanding what another person is feeling, from your own perspective. It’s when you care about somebody else’s feelings, for example when they are grieving, feeling sad or experiencing troubles in their life. There is some in-built distance between how the other person is feeling, in that we are only feeling our own feelings.

However, empathy goes beyond the boundaries of our own feelings and means putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, actually feeling the feelings the other person is feeling (count how many times I write ‘feeling’!) but still knowing the shoes (and feelings) are not your own. – Remember this last part of the definition, it will come in handy later.

We have started recognising the value of empathy and I have to admit I’m happy to see it. It’s truly  a great quality to have. It means we lean more towards vulnerability, that we seek closer connection in relationships, and we can have a wide of perspectives leading to a broad worldview. It fosters a more open and compassionate outlook on people, and I think makes society a more human place all in all.

From the word empathy, the term Empath is born, which means someone who has the ability to be empathetic more than the average person. Empaths are often quicker and more accurate at recognising emotions in others, and when feeling those emotions, they do so more intensely.

Untangled too much empathy

Can there be too much empathy?

As I mentioned, the second part of the definition is important: “but still knowing the shoes are not our own”. It’s in forgetting this that we run into some troubles with managing our relationships, our boundaries and our mental health. Many Empaths, tend to cross the line into feeling too much of what the other is feeling, so much so that they hurt themselves in the process. They may even forget that it’s not their feelings in the first place; they forget that it’s not their own ‘shoes’.

The boundaries between oneself and others becomes so blurred that sometimes Empaths have a hard time with our own self-identity. We may also feel overwhelmed with trying to help everyone that they forget to take care of themselves. We might also be so used to feeling others’ pain we may forget to tap into our own; forget to fill our already empty cup.

Although it’s remarkable the way that Empaths have the capacity for such deep, meaningful connection, in the end often someone ends up hurt. And we can’t be of much help if we sacrifice ourselves in the process…

I’ve heard empathy be likened to seeing someone in a deep dark pit of sadness or grief, and getting into that pit with them. Rather than comforting and helping the person trapped, you’re stuck in the pit as well, unable to help them, and yourself.

Now both of you are in the pit with no way out, feeling helpless. “Who’s going to support us, now?”  

Rather than getting into the pit and suffering together, empathy is actually extending a hand down to the person below. We tell them that we’re here for them. We tell them that it’s bright up here and actually they’re in a pit down there: it’s not all darkness. We might even help them out of the pit – if we’ve got the biceps for it! But otherwise, we offer our helping hand. All the time with our feet, in our own shoes, planted firmly on solid ground.

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