The Downside of Empathy

Two weeks ago, in Cultivating Empathy: My Journey to Understand, I shared this fairly common definition of empathy:

the ability to walk in the shoes of another person,
to live their life momentarily,
to understand the world inside their head. 

And I asked, Won’t more empathy make the world saner, safer, and more just? Today, we’re going to look at why ’tis not necessarily so. I’m asking:

What’s wrong with empathy?

From neuroscience and social science, we’ll explore the physical, psychological, and emotional problems that can arise from the wrong kind of empathy.

The wrong kind, you ask? Yes. It turns out folks who study this stuff have now divided empathy into three types:

Emotional empathy is what Walt Whitman spoke of in Song of Myself. This post will focus on the downside of emotional empathy.


Thanks to Pinterest.


Cognitive empathy arises when we take the opposing position in a debate or role play that lying, cheating husband of yours in marriage counseling (Hmmm; that was fun). This one also lets you relate to a character in a novel or helps you understand your opponent’s position in a business negotiation.


Compassionate empathy is, according to the social psychologists who study this, what we are after. Compassionate empathy, or compassion, provides the necessary detachment that enables us to create a “safe space” for the other to fully feel. There is no greater gift.


Studies on the neuroscience of empathy and compassion are fascinating (in a geeky sort of way).  Think anterior cingulate cortex vs. the prefrontal cortex and you’ll understand.  Yeah, right.

However, if you really are interested, I found that googling “image for prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex” brings up a wealth of copyrighted images for your perusal.  You’re welcome.

We use different parts of our brain when we feel empathy than when we feel compassion.

Graham Johnson, writing on the UK blog Well Doing says, “When we feel compassion, our heart rate slows down, we secrete oxytocin, and regions of the brain linked to caregiving light up.”  Our prefrontal cortex — those areas associated with motivation and reward — is doing its thing.

But when we take on another’s sadness or fear as our own — emotional empathy — our mirror neurons fire and our anterior cingulate cortex lights up (Remember that from “Blame it on the Oxycontin” post of nearly two years ago?) This is where we perceive pain. And this is when we can get into trouble, because  …

Emotional empathy cannot be maintained.

Hence we find caretakers burning out or medical professionals unable to do their job. Emotionally empathetic people are, by definition, under more stress than normal, leading us to the physical effects of empathy.

Physical Downsides of Empathy: exhaustion and illness

When we feel another’s pain or fear, cortisol, the “stress hormone” spikes.

The Mayo Clinic tells us that

“… overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones — can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. This puts you at increased risk of numerous health problems, including: anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, memory and concentration impairment. That’s why it’s so important to learn healthy ways to cope with the stressors in your life.” 

For those of you more scientifically inclined than most, you might also check out this link from “Neuroscience News.”

Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues. It also … alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of your brain that control mood, motivation and fear.  Which brings us to the next section.

Emotional and Psychological Downsides of Empathy: codependency, injustice, and dishonest relationships

Picture that metaphorical airplane we hear so much about, the one where you’re told to “put your own oxygen mask on before helping others.”  Emotional empaths ignore this warning. The worse ones run from row to row helping everyone else get theirs on.

When we allow our feelings of empathy for “the other” to subsume our own, when we take on their pain as our own, as Whitman wrote, when feeling another’s pain leads us to feeling responsible for relieving that pain, fixing their problems, or making them better again — to our own detriment — we are engaged in emotional empathy.

Emotional empathy can prevent the battered spouse from building a new life.

Emotional empathy can interrupt the natural and necessary grieving process.

Emotional empathy can enable addictive behavior.

Emotional empathy can result in dishonest and manipulative relationships and injustice, in the sense of in-group bias. (See Paul Bloom’s 2016 book, Against Empathy for more on this last one.)

We can feel their pain, yes, but we don’t need to stay in it.

Timing Matters

Remember our scenarios from two weeks ago: the hammered finger, the bump on the head? They were short-lived moments, each a jolt, instances when you felt the other’s pain.

And, while the victim’s pain may have continued, hopefully yours did not; your mirror neurons stopped firing and compassion kicked in. And compassion, by definition, comes with an appreciation that something needs to be done.

Compassion: a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow
for another who is stricken by misfortune,
accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

A friend is in distress. Do you need to call an ambulance? Does she need a cold compress? A tourniquet? In short, you kick into action, even if that action is simply to lend an interested ear or a soft shoulder.

I know; the definition is not so different from that for empathy.  For me, it’s a matter of timing.

And motivation.

Giving to Get

I’ve been reading May Sarton’s  At Seventy each morning the past few months and recently came across this, from her October 11 entry:

extreme awareness of other people … precludes awareness of one’s self, so that after awhile the self no longer knows that it exists.”  Bemoaning that her life was too full of other people’s needs, she pleads to herself, I must get back to my own life whether everyone gets an answer or not!”


Thanks to for the image.


Do you relate to May Sarton’s words?  I imagine we’ve all experienced something similar at one time or another. I think her statement is a good example of the need to set boundaries, to understand which emotion belongs to me and which belongs to the other. What is my problem to fix and what is not?

It’s often no more than the opportunity to pay attention the next time you rush to offer a crying friend a kleenex. Does she even want a kleenex? Or are you assuming she does because you would? How uncomfortable are you with this crying?  Whom are you taking care of?  Her or yourself?


How about you? Does the idea of different types of empathy make sense to you or does it seem like mere semantics? How good are you at having and holding to your boundaries?  


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28 Responses

  1. Bernadette Laganella
    | Reply

    After my son sustained a severe brain injury and until today, when I see a person in pain and suffering I experience the same emotional feelings . But I think that this emotional reaction is only a temporary experience and not really of value unless the next step is taken. I believe the next step to be to identify the cause of the pain and to help alleviate it some how. I think that when I move to the second level of empathy I automatically set boundaries because I have learned that balance in life is needed for survival. I hope this makes sense.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      You’ve added to or reinforced some of the fundamentals here, Bernadette, and I thank you for that. I had not known the story of your son and wonder if you’ve written about it and if you might want to Link to it here. I’d really like to know more; how you coped, how he’s doing now. I know something of the devastating powerlessness in watching a son’s illness take over his life. And I especially liked what you said about boundaries and balance. Thanks again.
      Janet Givens recently posted…The Downside of EmpathyMy Profile

  2. Pamela
    | Reply

    What a fascinating post – and I learned more than I understood before about the different types of empathy. When I was younger – much younger – I was more Walt Whitman empathic. In college, my boyfriend burned his hand severely. I rushed to the hospital, held his unburned hand, closed my eyes, and tried to take on his pain (I’d been reading about the ability to do this – perhaps in a sci fi book ??). Anyway, suddenly I fainted. Doctors rushed to my aid, placed me on a stretcher, hovered over my unconscious body. When I woke up, I saw concerned faces all around me, and my boyfriend moaning in the hospital room, alone with not one nurse or doctor attending him. That was my first clue that my empathy was harming, not helping. :-0
    Pamela recently posted…RIDICULOUS!My Profile

  3. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    I get a mini-lecture in a college-class calibre, all while reading in my jammies, lucky me!

    This week I encountered two people, one a long-time friend, whose lives are completely absorbed by their caretaker roles. I grieve for their plight, but because of distance can’t do much but listen.

    By the way, I identify with May Sarton and empathize with her feelings!
    Marian Beaman recently posted…Shakespeare, Vets, and a NewbornMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Oh the semantics of it all! I too empathize with May. Perhaps that is why I enjoy her so. But, do I continue to send “Sympathy” cards? (I didn’t get into the problems with sympathy) or do I rework them into “Compassion Cards”? Better alliteration certainly.

      Aren’t jammies the best? I’m suddenly curious about pajama history. And it’s cultural underpinnings. Hmmmmm.
      Janet Givens recently posted…The Downside of EmpathyMy Profile

  4. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — Thank you for the thought-provoking read. I’m a huge proponent of establishing and maintaining boundaries (emphasis on “maintaining” as merely establishing them isn’t worth a hoot).
    Laurie Buchanan recently posted…Do Your Ears Hang Low?My Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      An important distinction, Laurie. And to be sure they are not actual walls, and how porous might they be, and are they scalable? Oh the fun we wordsmiths can have with boundaries. Thanks for starting me off.
      Janet Givens recently posted…The Downside of EmpathyMy Profile

  5. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    Janet, a most informative post, and one I, too, can relate to. When I was younger, I was often drawn toward certain helping professions, yet recognized somewhere along the way that my tendency to internalize the suffering of others made these less than optimal for me. Even today I tend to be more comfortable caring and attempting to help others from a safe emotional distance — a tendency that sometimes gnaws at me, and that I hope to someday overcome.
    Tim Fearnside recently posted…One Big LieMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I hope today’s post sets your mind to rest. If helping people is of interest to you, you are probably in a better position to do so than others whose mirror neurons are in overdrive. Chances are, you’ll live longer, too. So your help will continue longer. All around, a most positive position. I wonder if that’s behind my increase in contributing to well run organizations, rather than rolling up my metaphorical sleeves. Thanks for adding your thoughts, Tim.
      Janet Givens recently posted…The Downside of EmpathyMy Profile

  6. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Janet , thank you , once again for your detailed lesson in empathy. As you know, the nursing profession is steeped in empathy and I had to learn-the hard way– over the years how to strike that balance between compassion for others and self-care. How do you cry with a parent who has lost her child then go home and fix dinner? After a while, you have to work it out. It’s called self-preservation. Take care of yourself so you can keep doing your job. I wouldn’t trade being a nurse for the world but I did have to find that balance. And I love May Sarton’s work! Another great post.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Kathy. So glad you stopped by. Your comment reminds me of the idea that — for those who have a hard time saying “No,” — we need to learn that a no to you is often a yes to myself. It gets all messed up with the notion of selfishness, doesn’t it? That notion that to take care of ourselves, to put our oxygen mask on first, is somehow selfish. I think we all know better now, but sounds like you had to learn that lesson before it became acceptable. Nurses are particularly vulnerable, I think. Social workers, mothers …. the list goes on. Thanks for stopping by.
      Janet Givens recently posted…The Downside of EmpathyMy Profile

  7. The Recipe Hunter
    | Reply

    Thanks Janet. A very thought provoking post. I will have to come back when I have more time, and reread this, but in the interim, I am sharing this for others to also read your post. Thanks for taking part and sharing this at the Senior Salon

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thank you Esme. This one and its earlier sister post took a few months to pull together. It’s been a journey. I’m pleased to have been led to Senior Salon by one of my readers here. And I’m very appreciative it’s available. Thanks for carrying it on.
      Janet Givens recently posted…The Downside of EmpathyMy Profile

  8. Cherie
    | Reply

    As a self proclaimed Burned Out ER nurse, the bit about not being able to maintain empathy really hit home.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Cherie. I’d forgotten you were a nurse in Michigan, before you and your family moved to Germany. Yes, I think burnout is all too common and so often a matter of finding those boundaries and knowing how to take care of ourselves. Unfortunately, neither are skills we’re taught. I wonder if that’s where “school of hard knocks” got its name?
      Janet Givens recently posted…The Downside of EmpathyMy Profile

  9. Lise
    | Reply

    I had what they would probably call “highly sensitive” tendencies when I was younger. I always reacted so strongly to other people’s emotions and I had to pretty much teach myself to care less, being less able to constantly show empathy. But overall, this was a very interesting read, I did not really know the names of the other kinds of empathy so it was nice to learn something new.
    Lise recently posted…The Banff Springs HotelMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Lise. Thanks for stopping. It’s interesting you mention “empath” qualities. Some researchers use empathic as synonymous with empathetic; others ignore it. There’s some interesting research into early childhood experiences as precursor to being emotionally empathetic. To me, it was too close to codependency and I didn’t want to go there, although at the start of my research on empathy, I was expecting to delve more into this empathic experience. I think the really important take away is the need to listen to ourselves, our own bodies, and take care. For then we’re in the best position to help others.
      Janet Givens recently posted…The Downside of EmpathyMy Profile

  10. susan scott
    | Reply

    Thanks Janet for this post and highlighting that extreme empathy means raised cortisol levels and therefore detrimental to one’s self. Boundaries are necessary for not getting burn out. Therapists, nurses, doctors – those in the helping professions, would be trained to have those boundaries. Compassionate empathy seems to be the ideal to strive for –

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Susan. Yes, that is the conclusion I drew also. What I am still puzzling over, however, is how one distinguishes between compassion and empathy going into the experiment. Many experiments were set up measuring the differences between those two, yet none were very clear on how the average person knows which is which, up front. I know how I distinguish (detachment) but I can’t say it was very clear. That’s been gnawing at me.
      Janet Givens recently posted…The Downside of EmpathyMy Profile

  11. […] THE DOWNSIDE OF EMPATHY shared by Janet […]

  12. Carrie Ann
    | Reply

    I really had no idea there were different types of empathy! I also thought they one and same. I tend to border between emotional and compassionate empathy, but most of the time it’s the emotional. I tend to be very attuned to others’ feelings and circumstances almost to the point that I need to close myself down or to remove myself from it altogether. The medical or counseling field are definitely not for me, and I have the utmost appreciation for those who are able to perform and be there for others in their greatest times of need.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hello Carrie and welcome. Sounds like you know yourself well. That’s always helpful. It’s all about knowing our boundaries, yes? Knowing what we are able to do, and how we want to be? Thanks for commenting.

  13. Bette Stevens
    | Reply

    Well-grounded and insightful! Sharing…

  14. Elaine Mansfield
    | Reply

    Thanks for the great information and research sharing. I’m a hospice volunteer and also the main caregiver (she’s in a nursing home now) for my 102-year-old mother-in-law who is a hospice patient. I need empathy breaks. When I feel grumpy about other people’s needs rather than giving and supportive, it’s step back and refill the heart time. I learned this when my husband was ill. I loved him madly, but needed a little time to myself every day to keep going. He understood completely.
    Elaine Mansfield recently posted…Mothering Our Abandoned LongingMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hello Elaine. Thanks for stopping by. You’ve had both long and deep experience with grief, care taking, empathy, and compassion, and I highly recommend your memoir Leaning into Love. I’m so glad you added your voice.

  15. wambi
    | Reply

    Excellent topic, and very timely! One of the best experiences for me in terms of understanding the true meaning of compassion was the first time I chaired our county food drive. It was one thing to do radio interviews and speak before groups, but what made a difference for me was meeting with the people who were on the receiving end of the services we supported. It was quite an eye opener and that helped me to convey the real issues to the community through the course of the campaign.

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