The Paradox Of Empathy: 5 Times My Compassion Did More Harm Than Good
After hearing how someone I know is struggling or going through a really stressful time, I often feel a knot form in my stomach.
My heartbeat quickens and pounds within my chest, to the point where I feel like I’m suffocating. I'm overwhelmed by feelings of despair and powerlessness.
This is all caused by the very character trait I’m told is endearing: empathy.
There is no doubt if you asked my closest friends, "empathetic" would be one of the first adjectives used to describe me.
It's an integral part of my spirituality.
Mahatma Gandhi said:
I call him religious who understands the suffering of others.
I understand the suffering of others more than I can stand sometimes.
I often find myself stepping out of my own shoes and stepping into another person’s experience.
This empathy awakens my compassion, which is another character trait with positive connotations.
Time and time again, I’ve been told empathy is a gift.
However, it wasn’t until recently that I started to see the harm this “gift” can cause, especially if you don’t know how to turn it on and off.
If being overly empathetic is something you struggle with, you may identify with some of the scenarios below:
1. In Dating
It’s important to care about the feelings of the person you're dating, whether it's casual or serious.
However, it’s problematic if you care more about the other person’s feelings than your own well-being.
I had a particularly difficult time breaking up with an ex-boyfriend, even after months of feeling things weren’t right.
He was not an emotional person, and the first time I saw him cry was the first time I broke up with him.
I felt his pain and his desire to try to make things right.
Sadly, I didn’t pull the trigger and go with my gut. I just prolonged the inevitable.
His feelings were valid, but so were my own.
Empathetic people can sometimes become codependent and lose themselves in relationships.
They often become consumed with the desire to solve the other person's problems and meet his or her every need.
This causes them to neglect their own.
2. With Feelings Of Obligation
I grew up with parents who let their feelings of empathy and compassion consume them to the point where they blurred personal boundaries.
My parents were (and still are) often called by neighbors to help mediate family arguments and stop physical altercations.
There was this one particular neighbor, an elderly woman, who took it upon herself to “adopt” my parents as her children.
This meant they shoveled snow for her, helped her mediate and translate tenant dilemmas and checked in on her daily.
My parents felt for her because she was lonely and none of her children looked after her.
However, she had no concept of personal space.
She would call the house phone multiple times early in the morning if my parents didn’t leave the house at their usual time.
Given this background, I've found that when I empathize with individuals in need, I feel a strong sense of obligation to help them.
Recently, my husband and I encountered a woman through our church who was, to put it lightly, mentally unwell.
Her references to psychiatrists and medication made it clear she was not just socially awkward.
On the way out of the gathering, she asked us if we could give her a ride home because she had a phobia of the subway.
I was stuck for a second, but thankfully, I was able to communicate we were unable to do that because we had prior commitments.
It doesn’t end there.
Once I got home, she called my phone explaining no taxis would stop for her, and she was going to have to sleep on the street if she couldn’t find a way home.
I asked her if she had anyone else she could call, and she said no one else was picking up.
I felt terrible and at a loss for what to do.
I got off the phone with her and texted her my apologies for not being able to help. I wished her the best of luck and “turned off” my empathy.
I realized it was unsafe and unrealistic for me to do anything in that situation.
She texted me 20 minutes later that she took a bus home.
Sometimes, you just have to turn away and let people deal with things on their own.
They found a way to function and survive before they met you, and they will find a way to continue after.
3. At Work
Work can be another challenging place for the overly empathetic.
Empathy will have you focusing on the struggles of the people who work for you, rather than the quality and efficiency of their work.
I won't go into all the details, but my coworker seems to have a stressful life.
From the looks of it, her relationship with her husband is strained, and her daughter runs the household.
On a few occasions, she has even walked into work in tears. Immediately, my empathy was activated.
Per usual, my coworker did not do the tasks expected of her. It truly was a disservice to the people who depend on her.
Everyone has a bad day and everyone has troubles, but that doesn’t justify not doing what we are being paid to do.
You can have an off day. You may even have an off year.
But when does it end?
Other people are also affected by your negligence.
4. With Family
My aunt is very different from her siblings.
She was the only one to be “adopted” from birth, and it seems once she learned the truth about not being a blood relative, her whole world turned upside down.
Since then, she has constantly been making bad decisions. After my grandmother passed away, things became much worse.
She has four children, is in very bad health and is currently in a relationship with a man who used to physically abuse her.
Every time I get an update about her family, it breaks my heart.
Her 13-year-old son was recently suspended from school and admitted to a psychiatric ward for threatening to hurt himself and others.
Her 9-year-old daughter was caught smoking weed.
I would call, but the phone number changes every few weeks.
Honestly, I don’t really know what I would say.
I just know I feel for her. When I think about the physical and emotional pain she and the rest of her family must be in, I want to fix it.
I feel like I have to fix it.
I’m her family.
But here’s the thing I’m learning: You can’t help people who don’t want to help themselves.
I'm sure you've heard this clichéd saying:
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
As a family, we have given her more than just two chances.
Time after time, she has called for help with mediating family scenarios, some kind of cosign and more often than not, “loans” she never pays back.
It’s gotten to a point where if we don’t shut our empathy off, we will only enable her to continue to make bad decisions.
The very emotion that is meant to stir compassion and love can be detrimental if it allows her to further her destructive behavior.
There's a fine line between empathizing and enabling.
5. In Relationships
I can't begin to tell you how many times my empathy for others has caused strain on my marriage.
I feel so much for others that I inconvenience myself and my husband by trying to accommodate or alleviate their struggles.
I want to and need to be true to the empathetic person I am.
However, I’m learning to turn the empathy off. This is not just for my well-being, but also for the sake of my marriage.
It’s dangerous to care so much or feel so much for others that you completely forget about your partner in the process.
My husband and I both took The 5 Love Languages quiz, and I discovered his number one way of receiving love is quality time.
Knowing this, I now make sure that before I make plans or venture on another one of my compassion missions, I’ve given him the quality time he needs and deserves.
I still like to see the best in people and circumstances.
The ability to see things clearly from another person's perspective makes for good relationships.
Empathy arouses compassion, which means we are more willing to offer help.
Empathetic people are giving and caring. They often move past the walls people build and experience deep spiritual connections.
It’s just frightening how quickly something like empathy can spiral into feelings like guilt for not doing more.
When empathy is activated, you become a human strainer for other people's problems.
If you're not careful, all the heavy stuff stays with you.
Balance is key.
My life experiences have taught me the importance of setting personal boundaries, nurturing healthy relationships and maintaining a sense of well-being.
It’s not an easy task, and I continue to struggle with it daily.