Empathy is crucial to building meaningful relationships, but becoming caught in the ‘empathy trap’ can have negative consequences.
Empathy allows us to share other people’s emotions and see from their perspectives. It’s how we bond and come together, and helps us feel understood and heard by others. Empathy can be overwhelmingly positive, moving you to tears of joy as you watch people you care for overcome setbacks, or embark on milestone moments like getting married or giving birth.
However, empathy can also be devastating. We’re constantly presented with human suffering, from beggars at the side of the road to social media stories about pain and hardship, to friends, family and co-workers enduring unimaginable challenges. Becoming consumed by other people’s misfortunes can leave you feeling depressed or even pitch you into despair, to the point where you neglect your own needs and feelings. So how do you draw the line between remaining compassionate and spiralling into unrestrained empathy?
The empathy trap
It’s normal – and, indeed, necessary – to put other people’s feelings before our own sometimes. For example, a large part of being a parent involves depriving yourself of sleep to provide care, sacrificing time and money to put towards
necessities and fun for your family and, of course, the little things: forgoing a Netflix binge and a glass of wine to watch Frozen for the 100th time with the little one, anyone? In successful adult relationships, we also sometimes allow our emotions and needs to take a back seat in order to favour those of our partners. However, this needs to be reciprocal. If you find your feelings are constantly being consumed by theirs, you may begin to lose yourself and stop
attending to your own needs and emotions.
Sympathy, compassion and empathy
While these three things are often confused, they’re actually distinct from each other and all play a part in connecting
Sympathy involves feeling for someone. However – unlike empathy – it doesn’t mean you actively feel what you imagine to be the other’s emotions. For example, upon hearing of the death of a friend’s family member, you might feel sorry that they’re having to experience pain and express your sympathy to them.
Compassion is manifested as care and concern for others, and while it usually includes the desire to help, it’s further
removed from those suffering than empathy. Compassion is expressed, for example, by nurses and careworkers who
tend to those in need and offer kindness and reassurance.
Empathy involves actually feeling with someone, putting ourselves in their shoes. It can blur the line between the self and the other, as our thoughts and feelings are simultaneously our own and what we imagine those of another to feel like. More than just emotion, empathy involves complex thought experiments and imagination. For instance, if you see someone at a traffic light who’s begging for food or money, you may be struck with thoughts of what you imagine their life to be like. You might begin to feel some of the pain, exhaustion, humiliation and sheer desperation you imagine them to be feeling.
It’s important to acknowledge the prevalence of imagination in empathy because while highly empathetic people are generally able to identify emotions in others, they don’t always interpret them correctly. They may be projecting (decoding narratives using emotions they themselves are feeling), skewing the truth of the other person’s reality, or
might simply misinterpret the situation and make incorrect assumptions.
To avoid this trap, it’s crucial to find balance between thoughts and emotions, and between yourself and others. It’s also important not to perceive your own needs as less important or worthy. The empathy trap occurs when we feel other people’s emotions so strongly and consistently that they become entangled with our own. This is true in all situations, whether you’re reading the news online and become overwhelmed by all the negativity out there or are
drawn in by a tragic story on Facebook.
When it comes to social media, the empathy trap comes not only from learning about negative events via the Internet: it’s from the overwhelming speed at which we can consume a massive volume of negative information, leaving us at
constant risk of over-exposure to the problems of others. Sometimes you need to disentangle yourself from outside emotions for the sake of your mental and physical health.
The cost of empathy
A 2016 study published in Health Psychology found that parents who consistently expressed high levels of empathy with their children – those who ‘readily engaged with the perspectives and struggles of others and expended physiological resources to help others’ – were more likely to experience chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammatory diseases are among the most significant causes of death in the world, according to the World Health Organisation, and include diabetes, arthritis and cardiovascular diseases.
Studies have also found that people who regularly prioritise others’ feelings above their own are at higher risk of generalised anxiety and depression, and tend to experience feelings of emptiness and alienation. Extremely empathetic people are also at higher risk of experiencing exhaustion from deflecting their own feelings, resulting in a lack of internal resources to properly care for themselves and others, losing the ability to know what they want or need for themselves, having a diminished ability to make healthy decisions and losing confidence in the validity of
their own feelings.
Excessive empathy also puts you at risk of burning out. For example, research shows that nurses who work with terminally ill patients are at an especially high risk of developing ‘compassion fatigue’, a combination of emotional,
physical and spiritual depletion associated with caring for patients in significant emotional pain and physical distress.
A healthier way to empathise
While being excessively empathetic can lead to problems, empathy remains a necessary part of human connection and is an important skill to develop. Though being overwhelmed by others’ feelings can be harmful, practising empathy consciously and with care for yourself can be intrinsically rewarding. For example, the same study which found that excessive empathy in parents can lead to chronic inflammation also found that the adolescent children of empathetic parents showed better emotion regulation and less systemic inflammation. In addition, empathetic parents were found to have greater self-esteem and purpose in life. The key, then, is not to stifle your empathy, but to express it more healthily. Find ways to give yourself a break from absorbing negative emotions, which will enable you to empathise in happier, healthier ways.
Convert it to sympathy and compassion
Take a step back from distressing or painful news and offer care and support. Instead of internalising or assuming the
feelings expressed by someone in pain, try to convert excess empathy to compassion and sympathy: let them know you’re sorry for the way they’re feeling and ask what you can do to help.
Keep good company
Remove yourself from toxic company and spend time with people who bring you joy and show concern for your wellbeing. You might also want to avoid larger groups, which can be overwhelming, and spend time with a few close friends at a time until you’re feeling stronger.
Allow yourself time alone, away from friends and family, when you can contemplate your own emotions and needs. Solitude is necessary for shutting off, recharging and reconnecting with yourself, without having to navigate other people’s feelings or perspectives.
Social media detox
Take a break from social media to avoid being flooded with negative news. Limit your time on social media apps to an hour a day, delete the apps from your phone or simply turn off social media notifications to make it easier.
Learn to say ‘no’ – something which is often difficult for highly empathetic people to master. As you’re so attuned to the emotions of others, you’re probably used to pushing your own needs aside to attend to theirs. It’s essential that you learn to acknowledge your own mental, emotional and physical needs and prioritise them, when necessary. Turn your empathy inwards, as looking after your own needs will allow you to be more present for others.
FEATURE: CAITLIN GENG PHOTO: STOCK.ADOBE.COM