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Reflections on Empathy

portrait of Jessica Culp

Melanie Marklein, PhD

Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Training and Education Director

“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet, if we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce. Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument. That is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

The other day I came upon this passage by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, author, and teacher. It is essentially a description of empathy. I love what he says about prioritizing understanding over blame and argument. I wholeheartedly believe that if we all practiced this skill, our collective fear, anger and stress would decrease dramatically, our relationships would be deeper and more peaceful, our children would thrive and grow to be healthy adults, and a sense of connection would replace the overwhelming sense of alienation and disconnection that exists in our world. And yet, I am aware of a small tinge of “yes, but…” resistance inside when I read the passage.

Which has led me to spend some time reflecting on empathy and what bothers me about it.

I sometimes wonder, is there such a thing as too much empathy? Can a person be too empathic? We have all heard about how important it is to “put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.” But sometimes I notice myself, and many of my clients, living more in other people’s shoes than in my/their own.

Empathy is probably the most valuable skill and precious gift we therapists offer to our clients. For many clients, it is the first time they have ever experienced what it is like to be deeply heard and understood without judgment. Most, if not all, therapy clients are able to describe past experiences of abuse and neglect, which can essentially be seen as massive failures of empathy on the part of those who caused harm. Yet, curiously enough, I have observed that survivors of childhood trauma—especially those who grew up with emotional abandonment from addicted, narcissistic, or emotionally immature parents—do not lack empathy. On the contrary, these folks tend to be highly sensitive, empathic people who find the thought of hurting their parents’ feelings practically unbearable. It seems that their extraordinary ability to empathize with others often interferes with their ability to trust themselves and take any self-driven action in life. The concern about how their actions will affect everyone around them can often leave them feeling completely paralyzed.

Here is another question that runs through my mind when I read the Thich Nhat Hanh quote. What if the empathy/understanding is only going in one direction? Through my own experience of being a highly sensitive and empathic person, and through working with so many big-hearted empaths in therapy, I have become keenly aware of how vulnerable empathy and compassion can make us to manipulation, abuse, self-sacrifice, and burnout. Such people often seem to be stuck in toxic relationships of some sort, whether that is an abusive marriage, a dysfunctional dynamic with a parent, or an exploitative work environment. A common theme in these situations is that the person struggles to stand up for themselves because they are concerned about the impact it will have on their partner/parent/boss, and they spend a great deal of time and energy trying to understand what could be driving the toxic behavior of the other person. They have compassion for the people who hurt them in the past, and the people that continue to hurt them. They will tell me, for example, that they cannot blame their alcoholic spouse for his addiction and violent outbursts because he had a lot of trauma in his childhood and he is just suffering and does not mean to cause harm. Or they tell me that after expressing to their partner that his stomping around the house and slamming doors when he gets home from work is distressing and anxiety-provoking, he accuses her of being insensitive to the demands of his job and not understanding that he needs to blow off steam, leaving her feeling apologetic and guilty. They are perpetually working to understand and forgive people who are not showing them the same favor in return. Patterns like this disturb me. And they make me wonder if empathy is getting in the way of self-preservation.

Inevitably, the next question to ponder is how much understanding we are supposed to extend to someone who is engaging in behaviors that harm us or the relationship. People ask themselves if they’re supposed to just “give up” on someone they love or if they should keep trying to make it work, thinking that if they just love them enough and accept who they are (abuse and all), it will be okay.

How do you know when your efforts to be understanding are never going to be enough to change the person’s behavior or the problematic relationship? Here are some of the things to consider:

  • Are you working harder than they are to understand their behavior? Are you the only one spending time and emotional energy on analyzing what’s going on and trying to understand the roots and function of the person’s addiction, lying, abuse, infidelity, etc.? If you are doing all of the emotional labor, that’s a problem. The other person should be demonstrating a sincere effort and willingness to take a hard look at themselves and do the work of self-reflection and change. If your compassion for their struggle is leading you to work harder than they’re working, then change is highly unlikely.

  • Is the person making an effort to understand your experience as well? Or are they always trying to get you to have empathy for them without returning the favor? For example, when you try to tell them about how their behavior is impacting you, do they listen and seek to understand your experience? Or do they become defensive and turn it around on you?

  • Are you providing yourself with an equal amount of empathy and compassion? If you are spending more time trying to figure out what the other person feels and what’s going on with them, than you are spending reflecting on your own needs and how you are doing, that is a signal that empathy might be getting in your way.

  • Do you often end up feeling guilty about being angry toward the person? If your partner said something invalidating or abusive, if your dad hit you, if your best friend stole something from you, you are going to feel angry, and your anger is legitimate. Just because you have compassion and understanding for that person and whatever experiences led to their problematic behavior, does not mean you shouldn’t be angry or hold them accountable for their actions. Understanding the circumstances that led to someone being a bully helps explain the behavior, but it does not excuse it. Holding someone accountable or preserving a boundary in order to keep yourself psychologically or physically safe, does not mean you lack compassion for that person. You can care about them, and still do what you need to do to care for yourself.

Which leads me to my last pondering on empathy. What is the connection between empathy and self-protection?

I have come to the conclusion that having too much empathy/understanding is not actually the problem. What makes empathic people vulnerable is that their empathy is not balanced with a healthy sense of self-respect or an ability to know and communicate their boundaries. What I have noticed in working with people who grew up in dysfunctional families is that they are afraid others will be hurt by their boundaries. One of my colleagues has shared this quote from one of her mentors: “Enduring abuse is how we take care of people we feel are fragile.” As children, we empaths were raised to pay more attention to other people’s feelings than to our own. We were taught to “be nice” even if that meant suppressing our discomfort (the classic example is being forced to hug relatives even if we were uneasy about it because it would be “rude” to refuse a hug and might hurt the relative’s feelings). We knew we had to wear the dress we didn’t like, or have our hair pulled into tight braids, because if we told our mom we didn’t like it, she would break into tears and we’d be scolded for acting selfish. In adulthood, fear that our boundaries will cause harm to others might sound like:

“If I leave my alcoholic husband, he will deteriorate. It will destroy him.”

“If I tell my sister that I do not want her to give me unsolicited advice and opinions about my parenting, she will feel so wounded and rejected.”

“If I tell my co-worker that I do not want to be interrupted today because I have a deadline to meet, she will feel offended.”

Basically this is saying, “If I take care of myself and have healthy boundaries, it will cause harm to this person who is too fragile.”

If you are resonating with some of these examples, here is what you need to know:

Compassion and boundaries are not mutually exclusive. You can be compassionate and understanding, and also hold someone accountable and do what you need to do to feel safe. You can have a firm boundary with someone without putting them out of your heart. A firm boundary might look like:

“If you hit me, I will no longer stay in this house with you.”

“If you continue to criticize me and my parenting every time you visit, you will no longer be invited into my home.”

“I do not accept work calls after 6:00 PM, so if you call me after 6:00 I won’t answer.”

As an empath myself, I admit that I cringe when I imagine myself saying any of those things. I immediately imagine what it feels like to the person on the receiving end - I can almost feel their disappointment or sense of rejection in my own body - and then I feel guilty. But these are assertive comments that are completely appropriate when communicated respectfully and straightforwardly without malice or aggression. Whatever reaction the other person has to your boundary is their responsibility to manage and figure out, not yours.

I am not arguing against the beauty and power of empathy and understanding. I am suggesting that we teach children not only to practice empathy and be considerate of other people’s feelings, but also how to understand and honor their own feelings and be effectively assertive. Because when kids grow up having to attune to and protect the feelings of fragile adults, without receiving the same level of empathy in return, then those kids grow up believing that they matter less than others; that other people’s feelings are always more important than their own. And that renders these adult children vulnerable to further abuse in other relationships. It is my goal to help people recognize that their own needs and experiences are equally deserving of understanding and compassion. I will leave you with a final quote that seems relevant…

“Before I am your daughter, your sister, your aunt, niece, or cousin, I am my own person, and I will not set fire to myself to keep you warm.” – Elizabeth Gracely

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