Empathy is exalted by thinkers from Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nha’t Hanh to British writer Roman Krznaric, who just launched an online Empathy Museum where you can virtually step into someone else’s shoes. Established scientists like primatologist Frans de Waal and developmental psychiatrist Daniel Siegel explore the deep roots of empathy in animals and its essential nature in humans. Even the business world exalts empathy as a way to ensure the success of companies and their products, with design firm IDEO leading the charge. We are exhorted to examine our empathic capacity and instructed how to develop it in ourselves and in our children.
It is normal and necessary to be tuned in to someone else’s feelings, especially when one is very close to that person. In fact, giving—and getting—empathy is essential in intimate adult relationships. “The empathic understanding of the experience of other human beings is as basic an endowment of man as his vision, hearing, touch, taste and smell,” observed noted psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut. The desire to be heard, known, and felt deeply never disappears. But when empathy becomes the default way of relating, psychological well-being is impoverished.
Where sympathy is the act of feeling for someone (“I am so sorry you are hurting”), empathy involves feeling with someone (“I feel your disappointment”). It also differs from compassion, which is a caring concern for another’s suffering from a slightly greater distance and often includes a desire to help. Empathy involves not just feelings but thoughts, and it encompasses two people—the person we are feeling for and our own self.
To put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we must strike a balance between emotion and thought and between self and other. Otherwise, empathy becomes a trap, and we can feel as if we’re being held hostage by the feelings of others. The art of empathy requires paying attention to another’s needs without sacrificing one’s own. It demands the mental dexterity to switch attunement from other to self. What turns empathy into a true high-wire act is that its beneficiaries find the attention deeply rewarding. That puts the onus on us to know when to extract ourselves from someone else’s shoes—and how.
Recognizing and sharing someone else’s emotional state is a complex inner experience. It calls on self-awareness, the ability to distinguish between your own feelings and those of others, the skill to take another’s perspective, the ability to recognize emotions in others as well as oneself, and the know-how to regulate those feelings.
Overly empathic people may even lose the ability to know what they want or need. They may have a diminished ability to make decisions in their own best interest, experience physical and psychological exhaustion from deflecting their own feelings, and may lack internal resources to give their best to key people in their life. What’s more, unending empathy creates vulnerability to gaslighting, in which another person negates your own reality to assert his or hers. For example, when you express your dismay to your friend about being excluded from her last few get-togethers, and she replies, “Oh, you’re just being too sensitive.”
Those who regularly prioritize the feelings of others above their own needs often experience generalized anxiety or low-level depression. They may describe a feeling of emptiness or alienation, or dwell incessantly on situations from the perspective of another. But what causes us to fall into an empathy trap—and how can we escape? Here are some ideas.
The roots of empathy
Babies come into the world prepared to be empathic. Very young infants cry in response to the distress of others, and as soon as they can control their bodies, they respond to those in need, to comfort or offer a Band-Aid. Kids vary in the degree to which they are empathic; there seems to be a genetic component and a hormonal basis to empathy. While progesterone boosts empathy, testosterone does not. But there are no clear gender differences in empathic ability early in life.
Much as the capacity for empathy is built into the nervous system, it is also learned, notably from warm and loving parents reflecting feelings back to their children. Almost all parents treasure the moment when a child spontaneously offers a favorite toy to relieve sadness. Ironically, though, many parents stop “seeing” their children’s kindnesses around age two and a half, and empathic behaviors plateau as parents start to reward more cognitive, achievement-oriented behaviors.
Later, parents may find themselves encouraging empathy again, to shape behavior or nurture a child’s own empathy. Think of the adult telling a teenage son, “I understand how important that event is to you—you desperately want to go—and I know that you feel really stifled by our decision.”
But sometimes children are urged to see things through a parent’s or sibling’s eyes; for example, setting aside their own interests to visit a sick relative. Many children are regularly called on to disregard their own feelings in order to “be there for others.” It may later be difficult for them to develop a balanced sense of empathy.
It is a part of the human experience to put someone else’s feelings before your own once in a while, but not consistently. In successful adult relationships, the flow of empathy is reciprocal: Partners share power equally and move back and forth between giving and receiving. When one partner does more of the giving, however, resentment is likely to build.
Gender socialization can contribute to empathic imbalance. Men who have been encouraged to “stand up” to conflict may become overly dominant or, conversely, withdraw in the face of someone’s strong feelings, not knowing how to respond without taking over or giving in. Many women are brought up to believe that empathy, in and of itself, is always appropriate, and it becomes their default mode of responding to others. The high regard in which empathic people are held obscures the fact that they may be neglecting their own feelings.
Situations of unequal power can also create imbalance between partners in giving or receiving empathy. Consider an extreme condition, Stockholm syndrome, in which hostages come to express loyalty and empathy toward their captors. Upon rescue, a newly freed person expresses understanding for the captors’ actions, sometimes even the desire to remain in touch with or to serve them. Battered women and abused children often form similar bonds with their abusers.
Sadly, in relationships marked by unequal power, those in the low-power position are more likely to defer to the needs of those in the high-power position. Doing so helps them hold on to the attachment—at the cost of becoming the architects of their own disenfranchisement.
Some situations, like caregiving, call for concentration on someone else’s needs. They can strain anyone’s empathic capacity. It’s important for all caregivers to find support from people who can offer the same kind of support for them.
From trapped to balanced
How do you know if you are at risk of being trapped by empathy? A yes answer to any of the following questions should raise a red flag.