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.
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.
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.
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!”
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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