How to Avoid the Empathy Trap

 April 20, 2016

How to Avoid the Empathy Trap

  • Do you spend more time thinking about your partner’s feelings than about your own?
  • Do you focus your attention on what the other person is saying during an argument, to the exclusion of what you want to say?
  • Do you often get so caught up in the feelings of someone you love when they are depressed or hurting that the feelings seem to become your own?
  • After leaving an argument, are you preoccupied with what the other person was thinking?
  • Do you spend more time trying to figure out why someone let you down than deciding whether his or her reasons outweighed your feelings?

Reining in over-empathy requires emotional intelligence; its underlying skill is self-awareness. You need always to be prepared to explore and meet your own needs. Since you’re not used to thinking about them, you might not even be fully aware of what those needs are. Whenever your empathy is aroused, regard it as a signal to turn a spotlight on your own feelings. Pause (taking a deep breath helps) to check in with yourself: What am I feeling right now? What do I need now?

Once you know what you need, you can make a conscious decision about how much to give to another and how much to request for yourself. Of course, it helps to nurture relationships with people who are mindful of the needs of others.

Taking action on your needs calls on the skill of self-management. Once you start noticing the ways in which you become absorbed by other people’s intense feelings, especially their negative ones, you can create some distance—even insulate yourself if necessary.

To help manage the mixed feelings that a surge of empathy may create, you can change the way you communicate. Suppose your partner comes home irritated with his boss. You feel too depleted to listen to a rant or make him feel better. Clearly state that you cannot meet his expectations at the moment: “You know, I’d really like to talk to you about this, but not tonight. I am completely wiped out myself. Can we find time tomorrow?”

Highly empathic people are good at spotting the emotions of others—but not necessarily interpreting them correctly. They might spin an inaccurate narrative about why someone else is having a particular feeling, or they may get stuck in feelings arising from within. It can be helpful then to pause, put your interpretation on hold, and explicitly check in by observing, “Wow, that sounds really important. Tell me more of the story.”

If others question why you are acting differently, talk openly about the changes. “Sometimes I get so caught up in your feelings, I forget about my own. I’m trying to get better at balancing that.” Don’t worry about hurting someone else’s feelings. If the person has empathy for you, the conversation can lead to a closer connection.

One way to ensure you are taking care of someone you love while keeping track of your own feelings is to convert excess empathy to compassion. When a friend is distraught, instead of assuming the feeling of distress yourself, take a breath and a step back and say, “That sounds so awful. Is there something I can do for you?”

Emotional intelligence always requires being empathic with yourself. And that paradoxically allows you to be even more present for those you love. Take a cue from a temple, Sanjusangen-do, in Kyoto. There, a thousand boddhisattvas of compassion are guarded by 28 fierce deities. The ancients knew that empathy, compassion, and loving kindness need special protections.

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