Empathy and Compassion
Is too much empathy bad for your mental health?
Recently the New York Times published an opinion piece by Adam Grant about the problem of “empathetic distress: hurting for others while feeling unable to help.” He talks about this in regard to many people being so overwhelmed with empathetic feelings for those in our world whose suffering is front-page news every day: Palestinians in Gaza, Jews in Israel after the terror attack, victims of the seemingly endless school shootings.
He says that taking on others’ pain, incorporating it but feeling helpless to do anything about it or to alleviate it, leaves people feeling numb, and eventually they check out emotionally. “Having concluded that nothing they do will make a difference, they start to become indifferent”, as a measure of self-preservation.
Grant says that what is needed in the face of large-scale human suffering and tragedy is not empathy, but compassion. “The most basic form of compassion is not assuaging distress but acknowledging it. When we can’t make people feel better, we can still make a difference by making them feel seen.”
However. Empathy and compassion are both vital components of positive social and interpersonal life. We don’t need to create a dichotomy between them that sets one up as better than the other. Grant gives a narrow definition of empathy, saying “Empathy absorbs others’ emotions as your own: ‘I’m hurting for you.’ Compassion focuses your action on their emotions: ‘I see that you’re hurting, and I’m here for you.’”
While compassion is a response to others’ pain, we see empathy as much broader. Empathy involves listening to and trying to get an understanding of others’ life experiences, feelings, perspectives, and so on. So, for example, as a white 70-year-old heterosexual woman, I don’t know what it is like to be a young black person, or how it really feels to grow up knowing you’re gay and being afraid of the reaction if people knew, or living with a disability that too many people see as the definition of who you are. But I can certainly listen with an open mind and heart. I can increase my empathy for others, but this doesn’t mean I am taking on their pain as my own and holding onto it.
After George Floyd was murdered by the police, the comedian Amber Ruffin did a serious segment on Seth Myers’ show sharing how it felt to be hanging out on a porch with her black friends, just having a good time, when a police car pulled up and they were all regarded suspiciously, raising their fear and apprehension, and of course their feeling of the injustice of this. I was deeply moved by her sharing her story.
In the broader meaning of empathy, as it is commonly used, it is the ability to emotionally understand what other people feel, see things from their point of view, and imagine yourself in their place. Essentially, it is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.
Empathy is not just a response to painful situations. It is total, and it is positive: understanding others as best one can in all their full humanness. It is reading a book set in another culture, and appreciating the joy, the life experiences of others as well as the hardships. It is listening to someone you know coming out to you as transgender, and not only trying to understand their pain as they lived a life that felt false, but also listening to and appreciating their joy as they share how they have come into their own authentic self. It doesn’t cast everyone whom one should have empathy for as victims, but as full human beings.
Compassion. Empathy. These are components of living well as prosocial beings. They are often missing in people who lack these abilities to see beyond their own personal life, who experience interactions with others as adversarial, who can’t see others as full human beings. People who lack empathy are antithetical to a well-functioning family, workplace or society in general.
Fortunately, the vast majority of people are compassionate and empathetic. This is human beings’ superpower, you might say.