We hear a lot about the importance of empathy. Being able to empathize is necessary for healthy relationships and for living and thriving at work, school, home, and society in general. It is one of the most important traits to encourage in children as they grow up.
Empathy is an emotional and cognitive response that fosters connection and understanding between people. Empathetic people have the ability to share the feelings of another person, to come along beside them, step into their shoes, and see things from their perspective, even if they’ve never had the same experience. Empathy fosters a sense of belonging and trust along people.
But there’s a down side to empathy that doesn’t get much attention.
If you empathize too much, it can exhaust you. Which is one reason people in helping professions such as psychotherapy, nursing, and social work often experience burn out. Over time, feeling what others are feeling can deplete you, eventually tapping you out and leading to negative emotions and even challenges to your mental health. Consistently high levels of empathizing with others can also lead to apathy if you do not set healthy boundaries.
Empathy can also lead to divisiveness, which sounds contradictory because it’s such an essential skill for building trusting relationships. But since empathy helps us connect to others’ suffering, it can be limiting because it causes us to strongly identify with particular people and groups. An article in Forbes about the dark side of empathy reports that,
While our instinct is to support and protect our ingroup, we can perceive outsiders as part of an outgroup and a threat to our social identity. A recent study found that empathy triggered from social connection makes it more likely that we will dehumanize individuals seen as belonging to an outgroup. In its extreme, empathy can fuel aversion to those who are different from us.
So even though empathy helps us to connect with and understand others, it can fuel divisions leading to prejudice and even aggression.
Does this mean we should stop being empathetic and teaching it to our kids?
Absolutely not. Empathy is an essential part of being a good human and having authentic and meaningful relationships.
The only down side of empathy is that it doesn’t go far enough. Empathy should ultimately lead us to compassion.
According to Psychology Today, “Compassion is an empathic understanding of a person’s feelings, accompanied by altruism, or a desire to act on that person’s behalf.”
The word “compassion” means to “suffer with” someone, with the notion of aiding another person in his or her need. The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is an example of compassion. The traveler empathizes with the beaten man on the side of the road, but it doesn’t stop there — he has compassion for the man by showing him concern and care, and taking action to relieve his suffering. This requires him to come up with a plan to help and take the steps to make it happen.
Compassion is the standard for every Christian, and for anyone who wants to make love their highest aim. You can’t be compassionate without empathy, but empathy is just the starting place.
So don’t just stop at empathy — or you may get stuck in it. Cultivate compassion by allowing your feelings of identification and connection to lead you to consider what the other person needs and how you can help. This may be some kind of act of mercy, or it may be prayer, but by seeking to be compassionate you will be imitating not just the Good Samaritan but the Lord Himself.