So is empathy, being empathetic a good thing or not? I’d always considered it a strength.
As a coach, I seek to understand on a cognitive level what my clients are going through, without over-sympathising because as a coach, you have a retain a sense of neutrality in order to give clients a safe space for clarity, awareness and learning – being objective and neutral, i.e. non-judgemental in asking questions reflecting back. And again in work, I often find I ‘can see where someone is coming from’ – whilst I may not agree with it and it may not be what I would do.
But then there is empathy that comes out of nowhere –where you can emotionally step into someone’s shoes. Again it doesn’t mean condoning ‘bad’ or ‘damaging’ behaviours but you might try and understand where the other person is coming from and try to help. And also – that’s where you might find yourself watching a film, reading a book and becoming very absorbed in what is happening to a particular character. So these are more along the lines of empathy based on emotion.
There are six different types of empathy – emotional, medical, geomantic (to a place, geography), plant, animal and clairvoyant/intuitive
And some people are not empathic at all, whereas some are overtly-empathetic to their own detriment. Paul Bloom, a Yale Psychology professor has written a book, “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.” He claims that empathy is based on our bias can lead to immoral and flawed decisions, and he has often been quoted as saying:
“It feels great, but given the nature of our minds, [empathy] leads us to bias decisions, to enumerate decisions, and often, cruel decisions.”
“The temptation of empathy is to make the problem go away for the person immediately — and who this person is depends on what they look like and what they seem like.”
I was not quite sure I agreed with this, nor some of the examples he gave, but then there are extremes of every emotion. He then goes onto explain compassion – so maybe that is the word we ‘should’ to rather than empathy which gets a bad press sometimes, Bloom says:
“There’s a lot of experiments looking at empathy and compassion, finding that not only do they activate different parts of the brain, but that when you feel compassion you’re actually better able to help. You enjoy helping, because you’re not suffering along with people.”
Phew! I do agree that being overly empathetic can mean you lose yourself in another’s’ problems but I also feel that there are degrees of empathy and different types of empathy. This is something I definitely want to research in a bit more detail, as I do have a tendency to empathise with others. However – I do couple that with the ability to see the bigger picture, as well the detail, and to have a very keen sense of my own boundaries. So I have my own definition of empathy.
Whatever type of empath you are it’s important to have a sense of your boundaries and tolerances to avoid making unhealthy choices and exhausting yourself. And in certain circles, empathy is not always a trait that is encouraged.
But empathy can feel good, and it can benefits groups so maybe it’s worth thinking about your own boundaries. and thinking about the benefits to you of empathy, how will it help the people you care about and engage with…how will it help you?
Now compassion – I like that word!
“Compassion is the keen awareness of the interdependence of all things”
– Thomas Merton
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