Painting by Belynda Wilson Thomas
Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself. Marcus Aurelius
We hear a lot about empathy and how we need more empathy. There is a downside to being too empathetic. If we are too empathetic we feel other people’s pain too much. Walt Whitman said, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels. I myself become the wounded person.” This is great for artists who want to feel what someone else feels and express it in some way.
It is not so good if we need to help someone. We may be better to develop compassion instead of empathy if we are to help people. We need to know that even though something hurts we must get through the hurt to get better. Wallowing with others where they are is not moving anything forward.
Psychologists describe empathy in three ways: You can think it, feel it, or be moved by it.
With cognitive empathy, you understand what someone else is thinking and feeling, as when you relate to a character in a novel or take someone’s perspective during a business negotiation.
With emotional empathy, you actually put yourself in someone else’s shoes and feel their emotion. This is the type of response that, left unchecked, can lead to caretaker burnout.
And then there’s compassionate empathy, where you feel concerned about another’s suffering, but from more of a distance and with a desire to help the person in need.
The risk of getting too caught up in empathy about another person’s situation is we lose sight of ourselves or the bigger picture.
We risk being flooded with pain, fear, and uncertainty if we remain too often in a truly empathic state, unable to provide a potentially healing presence. Sometimes we need to be at our most calm when our clients are at their most anxious, to be able to relay that we understand their plight and that they are heard. From the Downside of Empathy
One way to keep empathy in check is through compassionate meditation.
”Start by envisioning someone you know who may be in pain or may have gone through a stressful event,” he says, “and then envision them being relieved of that suffering.” It may be helpful to repeat a phrase silently in your mind, such as: May you be happy and be free of suffering.
”Encouraging the focus on the person’s well-being and happiness, instead of their distress, actually shifts our brain’s pathways from experiencing painful empathy to the more rewarding areas of compassion,” Davidson says. “It’s this process that helps us to detach from their suffering.”
”Research shows that these simple exercises actually affect your actions in the real world, making you more likely to be pro-social and helpful.”
We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more in imagination than in reality. Seneca
To be great leaders we need a combination of empathy, sympathy, and compassion. We often need to balance our emotions to be effective. If we have too much empathy with one group we may not be fair to other groups. Many leaders are said to favor business, but because we all get our jobs from a business of our own or someone else’s how else is an economy supported?
We are in a tough situation now where our empathy for those who contract a disease may be at the expense of those that keep body and soul together through work which produces an economy we all benefit from.
One of the main problems with empathy is it works like a spotlight, highlighting certain people in the here and now, making their plight known to us. This can sometimes be a good thing, but often they get support as a single person in some immediate distress. Empathy tends to favor one over the many.
Psychologists asked some subjects how much money they would give to develop a drug to save the life of one child and others were asked how much money they would give to save eight children. People would give roughly the same in both cases. Then a third group of subjects was told the child’s name and shown her picture and the amount went up. Now the donation to help one child was higher than the amount to help eight children.
This sets up a perverse situation in which the suffering of one can matter more than the suffering of a thousand. We need to make moral decisions based on reason and not sentiment.
Another problem with the spotlight is they are vulnerable to bias. Who do we want to shine the spotlight on? Neuroscience provides many examples of where empathy picks favorites.
There is considerable debate over whether western aid to developing countries is actually making a positive difference. There is a growing consensus that a lot of it has a negative effect. What could be wrong with sending over a little food and clothes? Those donations interfere with the economy of people there who are providing food and clothes. Local farmers and manufacturers are put out of business.
In war zones we tend to pick a side and providing aid may prolong the situation. If we give because people are unfortunate and there are others benefitting from that, then their interest is to make more people unfortunate so the giving continues. This is the case with child beggars who are maimed for other’s empathy. The more that is given the more children are maimed and put on the streets to beg.
People who are highly empathetic tend to be more violent and punitive when they see someone who is suffering. The suffering of innocents may warrant military intervention, but that often causes more suffering of more innocents.
We may have a hard choice when we see the ills of the world. Do we want to feel good, or do we want to make things better? We may not know how to make things better; we may only know how to make ourselves feel good. This is something to ponder especially as we are in a tough situation and the choices made will make a difference going forward.
Can we turn empathy for one into compassion for all? Do we need to take a logical not impassioned view? Are we looking at the big picture?
He who fears death will never do anything worthy of a man who is alive. Seneca
Life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future. Seneca
I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent – no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you. Seneca
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