Is empathy a weakness?

October 9, 2012

In July, Wired published an article about "training people to be compassionate" rather than empathetic. In quoting Tania Singer, an expert from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, the author writes:

In order for [the emotion] to be empathy a person would have to see that another was in pain and share that pain, while knowing that it's not their own emotion. However, empathy isn't intrinsically good and pro-social... Empathy is "a precursor to compassion, but too much of it can lead to antisocial behaviour".  ...Empathic suffering is a true experience of suffering. In order to avoid this, we need to transform empathy into compassion.

I shared this article with two fellow empaths, and both reacted as I did: badly. It's because this article makes a number of troubling — and insulting — assumptions.

Assumption #1: Empathy is bad (for you) and should be avoided.

Or, in the language of the article, it has negative repercussions and produces antisocial behavior. While I agree that burnout seems more prevalent among empaths, I don't agree that this makes empathy bad. Feeling for others can be exhausting, yes — but it can change you, and for the better. It can refine you, grant you perspective, give you wisdom, equip you for challenges that lie ahead.

Assumption #2: Empathy needs to be trained out.

At best, this article paints empathy as an annoying habit — and at worst, it's seen as an addiction or disorder. But empathy is a gift. It's a gift meant to be given, not made obsolete. The thought of giving of yourself to suffer aside another — that was once seen as generous. But as a society, we are (and have been for many years) shifting our focus to the individual, to how you can get ahead. Forget what you can do for others and how your empathy might change someone else's life. Empathy doesn't align with the goal of producing as much happiness in your own life as possible, and as such, we're being told to train ourselves out of the habit. I think this is terrible advice.

Assumption #3: Empathy is a choice.

I believe that feelings are valid and true. It's what you do with those feelings that matters. Your response is your responsibility, absolutely — but that doesn't mean that the feelings behind that response are good or bad. Singer talks about shifting brain activity, but this just sounds like suppression to me. I would rather embrace my empathetic response and modify my behavior. Will that make me more prone to burnout? Potentially. But I would rather modify my schedule, building in more time for rest and rejuvenation, than program my brain to respond differently to the experiences of others.

Assumption #4: Sympathy is adequate.

The article associates sympathy with pity. When was the last time you wanted to be pitied? You want someone who has walked through what you're facing — or someone who will walk through it with you. Empathy is exactly that. And I don't know about you, but I don't want my response to others to be adequate. I want it to be abundant. This article asks the question, what's reasonable for me to give? But I'm not about what's reasonable. I'm about passing on the abundant blessing of my life to others — whether it's inconvenient and difficult or easy and natural.

What do you think?

Is empathy something that we need to unlearn? If you're an empath in an emotionally demanding industry, how do you manage your response? If you aren't an empath, how do you use sympathy to connect with others?