This Business About Empathy

Some time ago, during a bit of self-analysis – which is always a lottery about how well that will or won’t go – I concluded that one of my problems was that I got stuck with a high empathy index.  Couple that with an over-developed sense of responsibility, and I was a sponge for other people’s problems, and feeling obligated to help fix them.  Oddly enough, it wasn’t a very good recipe for a rich and rewarding life. Fortunately, the sponge’s absorption qualities diminished a little over the years, as they do.  However, there was a time when my personal boundaries weren’t too strong, and I was pretty much a narcissist’s wet dream.  If you wanted everything to be about you, a few well-placed manipulative words here and there, and I could see how it all had to be about you, too.  Had a problem?  Tell me, and I’d take over doing all the worrying and seek solutions, so you could relax and carry on being a narcissist.  In a crappy relationship?  No worries, I’d give you hours of my time listening to your dramas and offering advice, which you never had any intention of taking, because what would be the fun in that? 

Now, don’t get me wrong, having empathy and consideration for others is a fine thing.  But, empathy with poor boundaries can blur the lines between being helpful in a positive way, or being a doormat; and being constructive, or being interfering.  Not everyone appreciated me immediately jumping in to ‘help’ in the way I saw fit.  It surprised me when I was told in various ways to butt out – it didn’t occur to me that some people might not want me taking on the responsibility of helping them.  I was a bit shocked when I realised that some saw it as muscling in unasked, and trying to take over. 

Others, of course, were delighted to let me take over.  And once they had me pegged as the one who took responsibility for seeing that everyone and everything was okay, it was all plain sailing for them after that.  I’d have liked someone like me in my life.  A little whimper here, a sad face there, and hey presto – someone jumps in and shoulders the problem.  Yep, I reckon I wouldn’t have hated that too much.    

The paradox is that I felt stressed and burdened by all that misplaced empathy and responsibility, but couldn’t see what I was doing to myself.  The trouble with those of us who have a high empathy index and sense of responsibility, is that we think it’s incumbent on us to save the world and all who walk on it, because no-one else seems to be doing it.  Then, because we don’t know how to manage or direct it constructively, we can get resentful at feeling put upon and taken advantage of, and that no-one gives back to us.  Yeah, I know – it’s messed up.  Mostly, my mismanaged empathy made me vulnerable and over-sensitive, instead of useful.

For me, withdrawing was an option that kept me safe from over-caring, and what I saw as having my energy sucked out by others. As I developed healthier personal boundaries, though, it was easier to be around people.  I began to realise that a complete implosion of all existence was probably not going to happen if I didn’t take it upon myself to be the fixer of everything.  I also began to see my life as being equally important as the lives of those who ‘needed’ fixing.

I got better at being more discerning with my empathy, and I learned how to abdicate from taking more than my share of responsibility.  I learned that empathy isn’t a bottomless well, and that it’s possible to give until there’s not much left to give anymore, and that there’s a good chance that no-one has actually taken much notice of what you’ve given, anyway. And I learned that sometimes it’s better to feel a bit guilty about not stepping up, than feel resentful about stepping up too much.  Sometimes, it’s not easy, but eight years of being the chief run-around for elderly parents who had multiple health issues between them, was a big help with curing my automatic step-up tendency.  However, the more I manage my empathy and consideration constructively, the less I get pulled hither and thither by it, and the better I feel about being in the world.

In spite of all the pitfalls of having a high empathy index, though, with all the ups, downs, and roundabouts that go with it, there’s good news.  In a world where narcissism is apparently on the rise, well-managed empathy is trending to be a hot trait to have.  Why narcissism is on the rise gives further rise to a number of opinions.  No surprises there.  However, to me, a couple of things stand out:

First – we’ve ditched God in large numbers.  I personally don’t think this is a bad thing, but many of us no longer have anything that is bigger and more important than us.  We may fluctuate between loved ones and ourselves, but ultimately we’re the biggest and most important thing in our lives.  From a sense of survival, this is natural.  From a sense of losing perspective on our own actual importance, it’s not so good.

Second – although we are living in bigger and bigger cities, our personal worlds are getting smaller.  We don’t get many opportunities to be visually wowed by natural awesomeness anymore, which has a way of making us feel humbled.  In many places, we can’t even do the simple thing of standing outside at night and look at the stars, because of air and light pollution.   We don’t see much magnificence anymore, and for some reason, buildings – however magnificent – don’t cut it.  It turns out that being made to feel small and insignificant by some natural wonder, is a good way of knocking some of that self-importance out of us.

Environment, social conditioning, and parenting can never be excluded, either, but that’s a whole big bad-arse psychological rabbit hole, which I won’t go down right now – or ever.

It’s true that narcissists win hands down in any competition to be an arsehole.  But, the narcissists may yet find themselves floundering – unless they’re amongst the 1% that holds half of the world’s wealth, then nothing much can touch them, yet.  With many jobs looking likely to be taken over by robots in the near future, those with empathy will find themselves hot property in the job market, because the jobs that will still be done best by humans, will be the jobs that require empathy.  Empathy is a core feature of emotional intelligence, which can be programmed into a robot to a certain extent, but it still misses that ‘je ne sais quoi’ of the real thing.   It seems like it’s a difficult thing to fake for very long by either robots or humans.  Empathy, of the well-managed and healthy variety, has been linked to life satisfaction, well-being, rich social networks, healthy relationships and workplace performance, and cooperative teamwork.

So, there’s a win on the horizon for empathy.  Managed well, it’s got big potential, and may well be the new ‘money in the bank’ trait of the future.

4 thoughts on “This Business About Empathy

  1. Caili'n

    Well thought Katrina. I am glad there are benefits to having empathy. I have been working on balance with this for some years. I have pulled away from “suckers”that would suck me empty of energy. Since I feel people physically it can make me physically ill. I don’t recall anyone even mentioning empathy growing up so it’s no surprise we don’t know how to deal with it efficiently until older and wiser.

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    1. You’re right Cail’n – it was never mentioned once upon a time. All the attributes related to ‘drive’ and ‘getting ahead’ were taught to us, but empathy was never really mentioned. We were supposed to think about others, but there wasn’t the same education around that. Balance is a good word to use, and I found that as I got better personal boundaries, I was able to achieve more balance.

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  2. Caili'n

    So many useful coping skills were never taught. Boundaries are a huge issue for me. Still challenging. Very important if you work with people and especially if working from home.
    I think in early life we are too busy surviving, in my case raising children and grandchildren, to think about what is healthy for us. As people get older I think they get more protective of themselves and boundaries from necessity. Less energy to expend.

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    1. I think you’re absolutely right about us getting more protective of boundaries as we get older – lol. I could certainly have done with some of those boundaries when I was younger 🙂

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