Escaping the Empathy Trap

“We’re the only species on earth that observes shark week. Sharks don’t even observe shark week – but we do. For the same reason, I can pick up this pencil, tell you it’s name is ‘Steve’ and go like this” *breaks pencil in half* “and a part of you dies just a little bit on the inside because people can connect with anything. We can sympathize with a pencil, we can forgive a shark, and we can give Ben Affleck an academy award for screenwriting.”

As wisely stated by Jeff Winger in this excerpt from Community, humans can empathize with anything. This is a wonderful thing about our species – we can relate to other entities with compassion, identify what’s hurting them, and help to alleviate the issue. But is there such a thing as feeling too much?

How could empathy ever be bad??

It may seem like a silly question; how can understanding and sharing the feelings of others ever be a problem? What, do you end up understanding them so well that you unnerve them?

For 5 years, I had worked at a supportive housing project for homeless people. They could live there indefinitely, housing provided, along with several other services. One worker’s behavior baffled me. They always seemed to have contempt for the people we were helping. Why would you bother working here if you had no compassion?

This is the first empathy trap, known in the helping professions as “empathy burnout”.

Stages of Empathy Burnout

The progression of standard occupational burnout goes like this:


Once they’ve reached the loop at the end, it’s too late. The person will become increasingly miserable. Their work will probably suffer, but often they’ve shown themselves to be a solid worker and likely haven’t done anything to earn being fired.

That’s what happened to this coworker. What differentiates empathy burnout from mundane occupational burnout: they care a lot about the people they’re working with.

Jobs like social workers, nurses (particularly those providing direct care), policemen, and other professions where you tend to come across people in pain, both physical and psychic, have high instances of burnout. Simply interacting with their “clientele” on a regular basis is an occupational hazard.

People in the helping profession often have a history of being exceptionally empathetic. That coworker? He related deeply with the residents. He emotionally exposed himself in a way that is necessary to truly bond and help someone heal. Eventually, it turned into a thankless job where they were repeatedly let down and hurt.

In short: it became too personal.

Little known fact: mental health issues can often present as being an asshole.

Another: Homeless people tend to have a lot of mental health issues, either having caused them to become homeless in the first place or was brought on by the homelessness itself.

All of this adds up to a high level of pain being carried around. Some would call them “pain-bodies”.

Who is attracted to the helping professions?

Imagine the most empathetic person you know. What are they like? Caring, generous, kind-hearted, and, frequently, tender? “Tough” is not a word that would likely be applied.

What happens when you mix people who have the ability to deeply feel the pain of others and surround them on a daily basis with people who are carrying around some of the most excruciating pain?

When I was a kid, I had a friend who found joy when a mosquito bit him. Weird? Just wait. He would wait for it to latch on, then increase the pressure by squeezing the skin around the bite. The bug couldn’t detach because the stream couldn’t be cut off, and eventually… pop. I imagine these highly empathetic people placed in distressing situations might empathize with the bug.

They want to help people but it begins costing too much, both professionally and personally. This is empathy burnout.

One reason mental health problems can often present as assholes is that they’re protecting themselves through this interpersonal barrier, trying to avoid reliving the pain they’ve experienced. Likewise with burnt out helping professionals.

In the end, this approach can turn empathy into something selfish and paralyzing. It becomes about simply stopping one’s own pain.

Once you reach this point, it’s important to both get out and seek counseling. If you feel you’re heading this way but haven’t quite reached this stage, seek counseling and consider a career that won’t make you become a misanthrope.

Another risk of those who feel deeply and really want to help is pathological altruism, as mentioned in a book, “Against Empathy” by Paul Bloom. This is someone who can be so consumed with the vicarious pain of a loved one that they can’t stand applying the requisite “tough love” and instead continue to enable the person’s (self-)destructive behavior.

What’s the alternative?

Gallows humor and depersonalization can take place as a means of maintaining one’s sanity when faced with emotionally disturbing situations, and it certainly is one solution to dealing with them. Doctors, cops, and lawyers are known to have some of the darkest senses of humor.

An alternative is a Buddhist approach of “dispassionate compassion”. An alternative translation for “dispassion” here could be “detached”; though it tends to have a more negative connotation, it is easier to explain. Buddhism believes that attachment is the source of all pain. If you are attached to something and it goes away, you will feel some amount of pain.

So, instead, they practice detachment from and compassion toward everything. It is a difficult duality to hold, but once you grasp it, you can be better equipped to handle these scenarios.

When someone says or does terrible things to you, it can be difficult to dispassionately analyze why they’re doing so. The reasons usually stem from some painful events from their past, often having nothing to do with you.

However, this line of thinking can lead you astray. I often see psychology students rationalize away how terrible someone is because they can understand why they’re like that. They had a terrible childhood, their parents didn’t pay enough attention to them, they were bullied, etc. All probably true, but that doesn’t change the results: they’re still an asshole, and sometimes you gotta remove them from your life.

Who is the better person?

The one who feels compelled to help through experiencing the other person’s pain, or the one that helped without emotion? It seems in our culture, we often give someone credit for being a good person simply because they feel for the suffering party.

While empathy is one of our greatest tools and helps us form bonds, and it can prompt helping behavior, there are limitations to its usefulness. “As if” empathy states – where we put ourselves in the place of those being hurt – can result in people becoming more concerned with alleviating the simulated pain they felt as a result of this purely mental experience. Instead, perhaps it’s better to cultivate the ability to emotionally detach from a situation and keep a cool head when a crisis hits. After all, shouldn’t help be provided where it’ll provide the greatest impact, not just those to those who simply evoke the most empathic response? As the philosopher, Jesse Prince, put it “the problem is not ‘whose pain pains us the most,’ but should be ‘who most needs our help.’”

A strange fascination in many cultures is the idea that simply feeling pain is, in itself, a virtuous act. I feel, therefore I am a good person? I can’t agree. As the essayist Leslie Jamison put it succinctly in her article “Against Empathy”:

It can also offer a dangerous sense of completion: that something has been done because something has been felt. It is tempting to think that feeling someone’s pain is necessarily virtuous in its own right. The peril of empathy isn’t simply that it can make us feel bad, but that it can make us feel good, which can, in turn, encourage us to think of empathy as an end in itself rather than part of a process, a catalyst to ameliorating the pain that has prompted it.

As she goes on to say, feeling for someone else should not be the end in itself. The end should be to help improve the situation and not simply to make ourselves feel better for either having felt for the person, or from removing ourselves from the situation that is making us feel bad (Negative reinforcement, anyone?).

Another angle that we need to consider is the social esteem that can be afforded to us by having shown that we relate with an unfortunate individual or group. This is clearly evident within the craziness that is currently taking place in the far left side of the political spectrum, tearing each other down for not being empathetic enough, or simply having a slip of the tongue. It is admirable to try and help groups, but when it’s simply a competition of who is more virtuous, that can quickly become a problem.

(Just to appease left-leaning readers, I would say the far right can also have a problem with empathy, appearing to err too far in its absence.)

As Robert Sapolsky said in “Behave”, “Having your pain validated is swell. Having it alleviated is better”. He suggests that we should look at teenage behavior for a deeper understanding of a rudimentary introduction of just how the adult brain creates our ability to feel empathy.

The teenage years are a great time for expanding our circle of empathy, and we may feel very deeply for these groups, though the common net result is simply further self-absorption. It becomes a way to signal your allegiance with a group rather than an actual call to action, aka virtue signaling. Save Darfur! Free Tibet! Kony 2012!

What do Brain Scans of Monks Show Us?

Sapolsky goes on to describe that there are two ways to view another’s pain: through an other-oriented perspective (how would this feel to them?) or a self-oriented perspective (how would that feel if it happened to me?). This is easy to predict in a lab: if you measure a person’s heart rate when viewing someone else in distress, a sharp increase will often correlate with the self-oriented perspective, and result in a much lower likelihood of taking action. The other-oriented individuals’ heart rates actually decrease upon witnessing the distressing scene.

The Dalai Lama’s former French translator, Buddhist Monk, and Molecular Biology Ph.D. possessor, Matthieu Ricard, had been instructed to empathically feel the pain of those people, he showed the same neurological behavior as almost anyone else. He stated,

“the empathic sharing very quickly became intolerable to me, and I felt emotionally exhausted.”

Again, this is a Buddhist monk, someone who trains in emotional and psychological training for upwards of 8 hours a day, nearly every day. When they approached the problem again and he was instructed to follow his Buddhist training, a completely different pattern of activation happened in his brain. He described it like this: “a warm positive state associated with a strong pro-social motivation.”

In the words of another Buddhist monk, “You act compassionately toward one individual because of a globalized sense of wishing good things for the world.”

Related Reading:


Photo by Suraphat Nuea-on from Pexels

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