Empathy Is Wonderful, But There Is A Downside
As an NYC therapist, of course, I think empathy is great. A lot of people we know could stand to develop more of it. Empathy has to do with being nice to other people and taking a type of moral stance that prioritizes your best understanding of the impact that a decision or behavior will have on them. However, depending on your early experiences, empathy can go wild and influence how much you put up with bad relationships and being mistreated.
Sometimes Children Are Asked To Have Too Much Empathy For Parents And Other Family Members’ Needs
Empathy is understood in relation to the concept in psychology called theory of mind. Theory of mind refers to the process by which children develop. In normal development, children develop the important capacity to imagine what other people might be thinking or feeling. It’s not just about envisioning what it would be like to walk in someone else’s shoes. It’s about being able to tell that someone is angry because their face looks angry, imagine that because someone didn’t eat all day that they must be hungry, or understand when someone says a friend was mean to them that they are likely feeling hurt.
However, sometimes children are asked to do too much of this and be too sympathetic to the needs of others. Sometimes this has to do with having a sibling that has particular challenges or special needs. In this case, a child is often asked to take care of that sibling or imagine how that sibling might feel.
More frequently, the most concerning origins of this are when a parent asks for too much empathy from a child. Perhaps the parent is overwhelmed or wasn’t taken care of him or herself. No matter the cause, the child is being leaned on and asked to be available for a parent to vent. In extreme cases, a parent or caregiver is abusive. This leaves the child with a particularly difficult conflict: “My dad is being hurtful to me, but he’s my dad. He loves me. I need him to love me and I want to be close to him.” One way to reconcile these contradictions is to develop lots and lots of empathy. For instance, a kid might think, “Dad hits me, but it is because he’s sad, was hit by his dad, lost his job, etc.”
As An Adult, Empathy Becomes A Problem When It Gets In The Way Of Being Treated With Respect
This expresses itself in adult life in a variety of ways, whether staying in bad relationships or quickly explaining away being mistreated by a friend, partner or boss. And often the empathetic explanations are valid. People who do hurtful things are very often in pain. Empathy can even have an important place in such a relationship.
However, empathy causes problems when it gets in the way of us protecting ourselves, standing up for ourselves and demanding that we be treated with respect. For someone struggling with this, therapy can help through building a relationship with the therapist, including learning to develop trust while being self-protective. It’s important to create new habits in the context of a healthy relationship. Ultimately, though, observing the tendency to accommodate and have too much empathy for harmful behavior is a part of changing it.
It’s important to remember that people who are in emotional pain can make choices. They can take responsibility for how they do that pain. We can both love them and demand that they not hurt us. But when they’re hurting us, the love needs to come second.