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.