The Danger of Empathy

Empathy is a beautiful word in both sound and meaning, and it is one that is being discussed more and more. I didn’t know what empathy meant before college, but now I hear it in school and church, and I see it used on social media, on blogs, and in bookstores. Today, I searched Amazon for books on empathy, and 7,000 results came up.

Empathy deepens relationships, fuels understanding, inspires reconciliation, unites us in our differences, and pushes us to act in love.

But it is also dangerous.

I believe empathy is a huge topic today partly because of our desire to reverse much of the hate we have witnessed and to embrace human connection despite differences; as well as from our better understanding of empathy and its physical effects.

For instance, some people have empathetic illnesses–actual physical symptoms that come from being around people in pain.

Have you ever seen someone fall and scrape their knee, and you wince as a pain shoots into your own knee? Have you ever seen someone cry and find your own eyes brimming?

Feeling the pain of others creates a strong, care-giving response. When we see others in pain and feel it ourselves, we are moved to help.

But sometimes we can’t help, and our feelings have no outlet. Instead of helping someone carry a burden, we create a new burden for ourselves.

I have lost sleep, time, and appetite because of empathy for someone I couldn’t help. I came to the point where, when I visited my therapist, I had to tell him that this empathy was crippling me, and yet I felt guilty if I didn’t feel it.

He told me I didn’t have to feel this person’s pain. I didn’t have to feel guilty if I let myself enjoy my own life. I didn’t have to carry someone else’s burden in my imagination.

It took some time, but I was able to move forward by taming my empathy into sympathy, allowing myself to offer this particular burden to God.

I sometimes wonder, if I had been able to help this person, if I would have been able to help at all if I had remained purely empathetic. I believe empathy made me more gracious and understanding, letting me listen instead of lecture. But sometimes people also need someone who is in a stronger place of courage and hope. I was worn down. To help, I needed a different perspective, and I needed to allow myself to take care of some of my own burdens as well.

I don’t think the problem with empathy is that it hurts. In my last post, Obsessed with Happy, I wrote that I don’t believe we always need to run from pain. Instead, I believe the problem with empathy comes when it is attached to guilt and fear.

The first time I realized this was when I was in college and picked up a book by Elizabeth Elliot on loneliness. I spent many hours drawing wisdom from her. But the book also terrified me.

Elliot’s first husband was killed as a missionary, and her second husband died four years after they were married. The thought of losing a spouse has always triggered me, and even though I was reading a book by a woman who found hope and joy after suffering, I wondered if I would be able to be that strong.

As I was reading and feeling emotional about her life, Elliot wrote about a woman who responded the same way. When this woman heard Elizabeth’s story, she wept as though she was the one going through it. But Elizabeth said that this woman was mourning something she could not understand–because there is no grace for the imagination. Elizabeth’s mourning had been met by God’s sustaining grace, but the woman who empathized could only imagine the pain.

Empathy lets us feel others’ pain so that we are compelled to reach out and help. But if we hold onto that pain as if it is our own and mourn what we are not ready to mourn, we suffer from a false imagination. We imagine the pain without the grace. We imagine the grief without the healing that comes with time.

I have a strong imagination, especially when it comes to worst-case-scenarios. But when I read these words, my imagination took a new and more positive route as I imagined what it would be like to heal–what it would be like to experience the grace and power of God. I had a new empathy that understood Elizabeth’s pain but also felt her joy.

I will always believe in the wonderful power of pure empathy in action. I believe in the importance of teaching empathy to our children and telling stories that instills empathy in others. But I also believe this power, when mixed with fear or guilt, becomes self-destructive.

Each of us has a burden we must carry, and it is a beautiful thing when we can help each other with the load because of empathy. But we do not need to feel guilty if, after we have helped, we step away from the feelings of others so that we can live fully in our own.

Pain is everywhere, and I know I cannot can carry it all. If I tried, I would never be able to lift my own burdens. Only God is capable of lifting the burdens of the world. This gives me peace. When I was depressed a few years ago, I could not look at the people in the cars next to me because I felt as though their pain seeped into me. For a while, I had to remind myself that none of them were alone. Every person is being pursued by a God who lifts burdens.

I hope we continue to talk about empathy and work towards being more understanding of others. But I hope the discussion of empathy will also begin to address the guilt and fear that can be attached to it, and how we can love others without abandoning ourselves. I hope we can talk about how there is no grace for the imagination, but how we can trust that grace will come when it’s time for us to carry our own burdens.

One response to “The Danger of Empathy”

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