Empathy: Too Much, Too Little
or Just Right
By Linda Sapadin, Ph.D
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Why do some people experience empathy so naturally, so spontaneously; while others seem non-involved, non-caring or simply oblivious to the experiences of other people?
Empathy. It’s not simply sympathy or understanding. I think of it as a spiritual connection in which we “catch” the emotions of other people, enabling us to truly feel their joys and sorrows.
Empathy: it’s kind of like what Potter Stewart, Justice of the Supreme Court, said about porn. It’s hard to explain whether it is or isn’t, but I know it when I see it.
- It’s the parent who instinctively connects to another parent whose child is seriously ill.
- It’s the wife who intuitively knows and respects when her husband needs to be alone and when he’s open to being together.
- It’s the therapist who can feel what a client is going through, even when he’s having trouble explaining it himself.
And yes, we can feel empathy for a person whom we haven’t actually met, but feel bonded with, regardless. This happens because of all the experiences we’ve had with that person, thanks to the media. Whenever a beloved public figure meets an untimely death, people who have been touched by that person will respond as though it’s a personal loss for them. Witness the public’s reaction to the passing of Princess Diana, John Lennon, and Jerry Garcia.
If you think you are lacking the empathy gene, yet wish to become a more empathetic person, the three main ingredients you need to develop are:
- A listening ear: I hear and understand what you are saying.
- A watchful gaze: I see the anguish in your eyes.
- A caring heart: I am here for you whenever you need me.
Lest, you think empathy is all about pain, it’s not. It’s also about rejoicing in another person’s happiness:
- A listening ear: I hear your enthusiasm.
- A watchful gaze: I see your face lighting up with joy.
- A caring heart: I am so happy for you!
Yes, it’s good to be an empathetic person: good for friendships; good for marriages; good for parenting; good for community; good for humanity.
And yet, there may come a day when you wish to become a less empathetic person. Why would you want to do that, if empathy is so great?
Because there is a dark side of empathy. It is when you feel another’s pain too intensely, too deeply, too consistently. Their difficulties drag you down. Their troubles get you angry. Why can’t you solve your problems? When you feel excessive empathy, you need a break.
Time away. Time to breathe freely. Time to be with those who are not troubled.
So, as with many other traits in life, balance is essential.
- Insufficient empathy indicates a lack of caring: not good!
- Excessive empathy will burn you out: not good!
- A balance of empathy: remember what Goldilocks said? “It’s Just Right!”
Linda Sapadin is a psychologist and personal coach in private practice who specializes in helping people enrich their lives, enhance their relationships and overcome self-defeating patterns of behavior. For more information about her work, contact her by email or visit her website at PsychWisdom.