Learn more about empathy

By planetm | November 23, 2021

Surely it can only be a good thing to empathise with others? Kiran Sidhu believes this is not always the case.

For some, it may seem controversial to say that empathy is over-rated. It’s like saying that having a conscience is over-rated. And where would we be then, if we allowed our conscience to take a hiatus? Those who do are not thought of well; so central to our being is having a conscience to direct us to do good.

We rely on both empathy and other people’s consciousness to make good judgements and recognise one another’s humanity. So how can empathy, the ability to imagine oneself in another person’s shoes, ever be thought of as superfluous and detrimental?

Of course, the value of empathy cannot be ignored. When something bad happens to us we want to tell someone. We take pictures of sunsets because we want someone to feel the same joy from looking at it. There are jobs where having a large dose of empathy is a prerequisite: teachers, doctors, social workers.

Empathy makes life easier; it’s only when we’re understood that our needs can be met. There’s less dissonance and strife in life where there’s empathy. It’s a human need to be identified with.

However, consider the words ‘I know how you feel’. They’re often thought of as the most comforting words to say to someone who’s suffering. We want our feelings to be acknowledged by someone; we want to be told we’re going to be OK and that things will get better.

We seek solace in another person’s shared insight and experience. And we can only ever truly believe them if they, too, have experienced what we are going through, right?

Where empathy gets tricky

Can we ever truly empathise with another though? A person’s experience is unique to them alone. Past history, present circumstance, and a myriad of other factors compound an experience for an individual. At the most traumatic times in my life, I have not always found comfort in, ‘I know how you feel’. It has meant that my uniqueness of experience has been taken away. Life’s experiences are not always felt the same, but are filtered through our own unique mesh.

In short, the exact same thing can happen to a person that you know, but be felt completely differently. This may sound obvious, but it is a fact that is often overlooked. We often see those who are empathetic as being virtuous.

Studies show that charitable acts are often led by empathy rather than reason, which to me isn’t quite so virtuous. A charity helping thousands of starving children in a faraway country will not be as successful at getting people to part with their money as a charity showing an identifiable starving child in the UK.

We can overlook the plight of thousands in favour of the victim that we identify with. This is called ‘identifiable victim effect’. As a result, we may not be so effective in our charitable acts. Reason and rationality seem to take a back seat.

It is well-known that politicians use ‘identifiable victim effect’ to their advantage; providing a damaging ‘them’ and ‘us’ rhetoric. Think of Trump’s Mexican wall and Nigel Farage’s poster showing immigrants crossing the border. They both used people’s tendency to empathise with those closer to home and closer to themselves to garner support. We want to protect those on our home turf from those who are not familiar to us. Empathy, therefore, can sometimes make us blinkered.

Too much empathy

While shared happiness is desirable, sharing another’s pain is not. A few times in my life I have felt burdened with another person’s grief – I have indeed, felt too much. Being ladened with another person’s plight does away with any good that comes from being empathetic – it debilitates. I have since learnt what I was feeling was ‘empathetic distress’.

Instead of positively feeling another’s pain, whereby one is propelled into doing something to alleviate their suffering, my ‘empathetic distress’ depressed any actions. This unnecessary distress worked as a barrier to any action. It was bad for my health and led to a feeling of hopelessness and apathy.

Therefore, the person who could’ve done something of use to help the victim, is themselves put in a place where they are overwhelmed with feelings. There is a case for being too empathetic – when empathy is not noble or useful, but ineffective and detrimental.

Imagining how another must feel by putting ourselves in their shoes is good. But we must be mindful that empathy has its problems. We must be aware of our own bias when it comes to empathising with the world. It’s not always necessary to place ourselves in another person’s situation in order to help them, we just need to care.

This article first appeared in issue 16 of Planet Mindful magazine. Want to live more mindfully? Check out more mindfulness techniques here.

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