The Problem With Empathy

Actually, empathy itself is not a problem. When empathy for someone becomes enabling, that is problematic. When someone expresses what may look and even feel like empathy but the underlying intention is manipulative, that can be a problem as well.

Empathy is considered an important component in healthy reciprocal relationships, and for good reason. Empathy is the capacity to be aware of and be sensitive to the feelings and experiences of others, and to feel some of what the other experiences without being told exactly what is going on with him or her. Whether we are going through a rough patch or a crisis, it is most always helpful to know others care and share in our sorrow or pain. However, misplaced and pseudo-empathy rarely are helpful, and can be harmful.

Misplaced Empathy

When one is in a relationship with a chronically hurtful person, (CHP), in one’s personal life or in other arenas, demonstrating empathy can make things worse for both the CHP and for the one trying to be helpful. Since CHP’S are expert at eliciting support, and expert at fooling people, they can use someone’s concern to support their hurtful and/or self-destructive behavior. People who exhibit a pattern of misplaced empathy give others what they want because they can’t stand to see them sad, lonely, hurt, or in pain. But doing so, giving into a request or rescuing someone from bearing the consequences of their own actions, feeds the problem. Rather than being truly helpful, this enabling behavior is actually self- serving as it doesn’t contribute to the recipient’s real needs but instead allows the rescuer to self-comfort their own fears rather than face the truth.

Example:

An employee in the business office of a large travel company had come to the attention of his supervisor. Several co-workers had complained that the worker in question had not been pulling his weight, that he regularly came to work late, took 2 hour lunches, and left early in the afternoon. The supervisor, a gentle man who prides himself on being a supportive boss, met with the employee to sort it out. The employee slumped in a chair, eyes red as if he’d been crying, and sighed, loudly and sadly.

Supervisor: “I see you haven’t been working as many hours as you are being paid for. Are you having some difficulties we should be aware of? We want to understand and help if there is something for which we can provide assistance.”

Worker, speaking slowly and with emotion:

“Oh yes… Difficulties… Thank you so much for helping me, and understanding why I have such a hard time doing the work assigned to me and require extra time for projects. I am so grateful for your support in this difficult time in my life… I am worried my wife might leave me because I’ve been so sad lately. She just doesn’t understand how hard this is. I can’t seem to get over the loss of my best friend.”

Supervisor, with a look of concern and compassion:

“Oh. Well… That is indeed sad… and I am sure you are in deep grief. And on top of that, there is the stress from the home quarter as well. I can sense it on your face… I am so sorry. No wonder you are having work issues. I’ll make sure you get an easier schedule for the foreseeable future until you are up to par.”

In this session, the worker failed to mention that he had had several affairs, and that his wife is now onto him. He also failed to mention that the loss of his “best friend” was not due to death. He did indeed have an ex-friend who no longer has anything to do with him because this employee had borrowed a sizable sum of money from him and never repaid it. His two-hour lunch breaks gave him affair time or time to hang out at a bar to watch sports. The supervisor continued his support for the employee’s “grief and distress” for a considerable amount of time. He believed this man at the expense of the organization and the other employees who had to take on much of his work while he “grieved.”

Pseudo-Empathy

Behaving as if one cares and is truly interested in someone’s predicament, when it is really all a pretense, is a too common occurrence. Most people have heard of, or know of situations where someone manages to get on the good side of someone in need in order to gain personal advantage. I know of several situations where someone offered love and /or promises of commitment to someone who was disabled or elderly and lonely or fearful. The families in these cases warned their relatives that the one offering affection, marriage, security etc., might be using them for the purpose of taking their resources or for other nefarious reasons. Sadly, the victims of the ploys would have none of what their families were saying, and in the end, were seriously hurt in a number of ways.

Another all too common scenario is when a recent widow or widower is wooed by a charming person who swoops in following the funeral of the recently departed spouse and successfully seduces the bereaved man or woman.

Example:

After fifty years of a good marriage, a man lost his beloved wife to cancer. A woman who was twenty-five years his junior, showed up at the funeral claiming to have known the deceased wife through their social contacts. The widower had begun counselling with one of my supervisees during the last months of his wife’s illness, and now was discussing this new relationship.

Widower, smiling and relaxed, the first time in a while:

“I feel as though I am getting a second lease on life. Cheryl is so empathic, so loving, so concerned about my feelings, so thoughtful. She lets me talk about Marilyn as much as I want to, and is always there when I need a shoulder to cry on. She is like an angel out of the blue who showed up in my time of need. I am falling for her for sure. She is beautiful, by the way, too.”

Counsellor, concerned about the red flag she heard in what the client just said:

“You have been through a really tough time. I know it feels good to have a kind and beautiful woman show so much interest in you and your situation… My concern for you is that you are very vulnerable now, and in the middle of grief… I am encouraging you to take more time before you commit to someone… You are still very early in your process.

The man saw the counselor for a few more sessions, but completely ignored her cautions about this new relationship. He married Cheryl, within a few months. Eighteen months later the counsellor learned that Cheryl, after having maneuvered a spectacular pre-nuptial agreement giving her a large portion of the assets that would have gone to his kids should they ever divorce, had indeed left the marriage and she had filed divorce papers.

Pointers for Misplaced Empathy givers:

Sooner or later it usually becomes painfully obvious that one is being used, or taken advantage of. However, there are diehards who, for their own reasons, continue their misplaced empathy, no matter what the facts and reality indicate. But for those who have been caught in giving support where it was misused, and want to break this destructive pattern, here are some ideas:

Don’t put yourself down. Accept that this person you have enabled is really good at eliciting support, and although you have been fooled, you are not the problem. That is, unless, of course, you keep rescuing instead of holding people accountable even after you suspect this is unhealthy.

Shift gears. Either distance yourself from this person if you can, or set boundaries. In other words, don’t get into conversations that would involve personal feelings or needs with him or her. Change the subject. Learn that NO is a complete sentence.

Pay attention to your own internal reactions. Notice how you feel over time when someone is using your empathy and concern to continue irresponsible behavior. If you feel exhausted, out of sorts, irritated or confused, remember that truly loving behaviors are good for both parties and feel good over time. At first, holding someone accountable who you have been rescuing will create more uproar as the rescued one refuses to take responsibility. After a while, though, when you do what is responsible, it will pay off and you will find a sense of inner peace for yourself, even if the other stays angry. If this seems too hard to do, there is good help out there. Twelve Step Programs are one option, and counselling with a competent therapist is another.

Seek work related assistance. If you find that you are behaving this way in a professional capacity, and you get feedback that your caring and concerned ways seem to be backfiring and adding to problems, not alleviating them, seek supervision so you can learn to identify those who are good at fooling you. We all need help and information when confronted with a CHP.

Pointers for Pseudo-Empathy recipients:

All of us humans have times when we are vulnerable and need support. We are less likely to recognize users and takers when we are in compromised positions, whether this be from medical issues, divorce, grief, issues with aging, disabilities, severe financial strain or other difficulties. It is challenging for many people, particularly some men, to ask for help in the first place. So, when one realizes he or she has been fooled, feeling shame or engaging in self-flagellation adds insult to injury. It is a good idea, anyway, for all of us, to ask for feedback and observation from trusted others before we sign anything, hire anyone, marry impulsively, or give away resources to someone who has promised something that sounds too good to be true. It probably is.

Don’t put yourself down. Accept that chronically hurtful people are expert at figuring out other people’s soft places, and jumping right in to take advantage.

Reach out to those who can really help. If one hasn’t family around, or the family is the problem, there are many agencies, religious and spiritual organizations which care and want to be there for you. There are many more solid and loving people in our world than there are those who dangle shiny things to dazzle us. Those types are just slicker and quicker. But not better for us, or anyone.

Once the crisis or situation has passed, regroup. Life goes on. Do not let what someone else did to you ruin the rest of your year or life. Get back involved in your community, or find a new one. Start a new hobby, listen to happy music, watch good films, and read uplifting books. Get back in touch with people you may have avoided for a while, and who in the past have been friends who care.

Remember who you are. You are fine. You can reconnect with the sources of strength and love within you. Those are there, no matter how it feels presently. Life’s lessons are sometimes very hard. But whatever you face, you can handle. That is for sure.

Misplaced empathy, and pseudo-empathy can do much harm. True empathy for self and others, learning healthy boundaries, and surrounding ourselves with trustworthy and safe people contribute immensely to a satisfying life.