EMPATHY: Too Little, Too Much, or Just Right?


More and more, we are learning how important a role empathy plays in our lives. In his writings on Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman emphasizes the value of empathy. In The Book of Joy, a dialogue between Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, they talk about how having empathy and compassion for others is a necessary ingredient to achieve connection with others and real joy in our lives.

First of all, let’s distinguish between sympathy, empathy, and compassion. In a nutshell, Sympathy is caring about another’s suffering; empathy is feeling with another’s suffering; compassion is empathy along with a desire to do something about it.

Empathy requires you to be able to access your own feelings in order to connect and relate to another’s feelings. If this is difficult, you might be able to have sympathy, but will have a hard time connecting with another person on a more meaningful level.

It is possible to have too little empathy. It is also possible to have too much empathy. This happens when you feel so strongly that you lose a sense of the difference between  who you are and who the other person is–the boundaries all but disappear. Too much empathy can create stress and eventually burnout. So, even though you pride yourself on being a very caring person, you can end up losing your ability to empathize due to feeling your energy so depleted you have nothing left to give. Being a “Caretaker” as a habit (as opposed to a caregiver, which is a commitment you take on), or a “Rescuer” (wanting to save someone/anyone in need–as you perceive it) are practices that run the risk of overdoing your empathy.

If you want more connection with others, and want to create more joy in your life, the challenge is to find the right amount of empathy that will give you those rewards.

Genuine empathy–how can you tell if the empathy you have is the right amount and also the right kind of empathy? You might truly want to be empathic, yet somehow your efforts don’t have the desired effect. Here are some things to look for:

    1. What are your feelings towards the person?
         a) Do you genuinely like them and respect them?
         b) Do you tend to judge their actions or words?
         c) Do you need them to do what you suggest?
         d) Do you need or want them to appreciate your efforts?
         e) Do you need or want them to be more like you (e.g. same values,                   attitude or approach)?
                  f) Do you truly believe they are doing the best they can?

In short, are you invested in a certain outcome from your empathy?

    2. Are you judgmental of yourself but believe you are non-judgmental of others?
    3. Do you feel any pressure (internal or external) to be empathic in order to impress someone, to be liked, or some other outcome?

If you answered yes to 1a), or 1f), you are more likely to have the appropriate amount of empathy. The other responses in questions 1, 2 and 3 may be the reasons your empathy is not producing the results you want, and/or you feel frustrated and depleted from your efforts.

If you’d like some additional tips on how to improve your empathy, feel free to contact me.

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