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?

(add yours >)

  1. Wow.

    Okay, I didn’t read the article; I just read your quote from it and your post.

    But to quote from your quote:

    “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.”


    That right there breaks the assumptions the article seems to be making.

    The wisest and, yes, most empathetic teachers I have known have been very clear that my struggle is not theirs. Yet I’ve seen them shed tears for the struggles of others, even while not owning it as their own struggle in any way.

    Isn’t that what being human, what being real and available and loving, is all about – recognizing the struggle of someone else even while not taking it on as our own?

    Wouldn’t our world – and our politics – be a tremendously, amazingly better place if more people were able to experience and show empathy?


    Thanks, Allie, for posting this!

    • Grace, I had this huge smile on my face the whole time I was reading your comment. Yes! I especially love this quote: “Isn’t that what being human, what being real and available and loving, is all about – recognizing the struggle of someone else even while not taking it on as our own?” I absolutely agree that empathy is central to the human experience, and I love that you put that into words. Our world NEEDS empathy, and I’m thankful for people like you who believe this to be true.

  2. I have several chronic illnesses. I don’t want your sympathy – that means you don’t understand. I want your empathy – your understanding.

    Okay, I grant that you probably can’t understand all my chronic illnesses, because you haven’t experienced them.

    However, you might be able to relate my fibromyalgia to what you felt like when you had a horrible flu… and imagine what that might be like if you never got well. With a little imagination, you could empathize.

    Sympathy looks at me and says, “Wow, I’m sorry you have a chronic illness.”

    Empathy looks at me and says, “Wow, I remember what that felt like. That’s no fun. I’m sorry you have a chronic illness.”

    There is a BIG difference!

    • What I love about this, Tami, is that you’re taking it to the next level and actually *teaching* people empathy. You’re helping them to connect the dots by drawing out an example from their own life. How many of us have been wiped out with the flu and thought, even for the briefest moment, that we would never recover? Now, what if that really happened? This taps into a basic human experience and draws out empathy for both the emotional and physical sides of it.

  3. Great post. The whole issue of “sympathy” is that it’s smug. People who have no empatheic capacity are useless in making this human experinve anything above the brutal reality of nature and also it’s animals. These folks would rather have a burn out by way of nothing is fun anymore than by actually risking having a deep relationship. It’s the cowardice of the human mind that plagues people. The sheer terror in not being the only one with such a hugely complex mind turns us into apathetic losers for a species. We have no shame in not caring, which demoralizes those that do. My problem with this whole thing Is psychology, it says that it is aimed at helping the species progress but in the same breath backs survival of the fittest as it’s worldview. Scary to think what that means: “we aim to protect the quality of society at the expense of the unfit, low quality.” They’re elitists who emphasize “superior existence which is super barbaric. “Got issues, lets drugem”, is a damn shame for the top species of all time. People see no use in empathy and it will never change even though it makes way more sense to try it at least once, we never will. THAT is eternally frustrating and void of purpose, as is the case of nature and the very existence of every single millisecond. If we don’t care we shouldn’t be here, the universe has far superior indifference and it is far more abundant.

  4. Allie,

    The biggest paradigm shift I have had is realizing that empathy is mostly biological. Growing up I struggled with anxiety and cognitive dissonance from our human condition. I was operating under the assumption that all humans had pain and discomfort from wars, starvation and environmental destruction. I couldn’t even fathom people could be born without empathy. I assumed all humans had the same innate nerves that allowed them to feel what other humans or even animals could be feeling. Anxiety filled my life as I tried to please the non-empathetic. Then one day it clicked, we are born different just as much as eye color is inherited so is empathy. The skills and reactions can be taught but deep inside there is nothing there for part of the population. That’s why you see one child saddened by harm to others and another child finding joy from torturing the family pet. We can’t change empathy to compassion they are really two different things. Empathy is feeling what another person is feeling, a person is born with this and it can be a curse at times and a blessing at times. In our aggressive, dominant, non-empathetic American culture an empathetic person will have constant anxiety. Our current healthcare system just tries to medicate the empathetic and tells us we shouldn’t have anxiety. Well the truth is we were born this way and if you have the empathy nerves then you will be having major anxiety about the world. Just like any other genetic variation like autism or OCD, people born with high empathy have very similar traits. We can’t turn it off, there is no changing it to compassion we always have compassion because we are constantly feeling what people around us are feeling. We strive to make everyone happy around us because then we can be happy. The bad side of being born empathetic is the constant anxiety and non-empathetic people take advantage of you. We should be gathering together as a group and helping support those who are similar, especially young empathetic children because they are a big target for bullies and manipulators. If you haven’t read it yet you should read “The Psychopath Next Door.” You can’t teach someone born without empathy compassion they just don’t have the empathy nerves. We should focus more on informing people about the differences and teach children about which one they are and how to use it in a positive way. Non-empathetic people aren’t bad we need them, we should encourage them to be who they are flourish in the right environment like being a neurosurgeon, lawyer or national guard. Instead of touting vague concepts like compassion we should actually address the situation for what it is. We are different and we are born different, now it’s time for the empathetic people to come together and find a solution that works for everyone that’s realistic and addresses the real issue. There are horrible things happening in the world, it’s because non-empathetic people are in control. We have to come together as a group and make big changes so that we can live in harmony and peace.

  5. Pingback: “Is empathy a weakness?” | Wok talks

  6. I believe the biggest problem empaths have is that, they forgive to easily and that is there weakness…. we must learn to be firm and stand are ground and stop being walked on.

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