Empathy Is A Superpower That Needs To Be Guarded Wisely
Empathy is a fantastic, enlightening, and a phenomenal superpower. However, like any great power, we must also guard it wisely in order to not grant it too easily. We need empathy to be close to our partner, family, friends, kid or kids, and other people in our lives. Our people hopefully also give us empathy when we are doing something “wrong,” are having a “tough” day, or are “sad” or “needy.” But, this doesn’t mean we must constantly be open with our empathy.
Empathy Gives Us The Power To Share And Understand People, Feelings And Experiences–Or Simply, Be There
Empathy is an action word–it’s something that is built, developed and played with in order to have the ability to share and understand either your own emotional state, or someone else’s past and present feelings. When we can see someone’s side of the story or experience, it is powerful that the person feels connected to us, and we feel connected to them, both emotionally and intellectually.
Why I see empathy as a superpower is that it allows us to zoom in, so to speak, and really hold people, their feelings and experiences. We get to be closer to them and their experience. By empathizing, we can say to ourselves, “Wow. This person is going through x, y, or z and they are hurting. How can I let them help me get closer to them? How can I see them fully in all their strengths and weaknesses, in our relationship and in this moment in time?” We can, then, ask (and always ask), “Can I give you a hug?” or say, “Yep. I can see how that comment cut you. I’m sorry. Can we talk about it for a minute?” Empathy can also allow us to simply be there and hold the emotional space by playing with someone, laptop to laptop, book to book, or pen to crayon. Oddly, these simple acts are everything to a person who can feel held, heard, and seen.
Empathy, However, That Is Too Easily Granted Can Be Potentially Dangerous
As Matt previously explored on the blog, there is such a thing as too much empathy. In toxic or harmful relationships, empathy can be especially unhelpful. In fact, empathy, in this moment, can be dangerous. Culturally, we are groomed to think about the other, which is key. But, with every rule, there is an exception. With empathy, it is when someone keeps hurting us or hurts us in a way that they know will hurt, but refuse to see it. In this case, empathy is unhelpful, and can possibly lead to getting harmed.
Empathy can also be harmful if someone is not hearing the truth about what they did to you and how it affects you. For example, if in a couple, one partner who is angry keeps pushing, the other partner who is trying hard to empathize may not put their foot down and say, “I get you’re mad, but you can’t hit, poke, prod or push like that verbally.” Empathy, without limits, doesn’t allow us to have healthy boundaries, and needs to be tweaked.
How Can We Tweak Our Use of Empathy?: Protect It
Empathy, as a whole, is powerful when used to get closer to another person or even yourself, and to feel heard, held, cared for, loved, seen, special and known. But, it’s also crucial to learn to guard empathy and not grant it too easily, using empathy more as a honing device, specifically deciding if it is safe to empathize. It is vulnerable to give empathy, and we too often ask people to get close to or empathize with a person who is not safe. If a person cannot stop a hurtful behavior or see that they are hurting someone, then we can’t grant them empathy yet. They have to stop the behavior, and see you and themselves.
In deciding when and to whom to grant empathy, it’s important to also note that empathy can live in some parts of a relationship, but not in others. Take, for instance, parents of adult children who might have very loving intentions in a lot of areas in their relationship, but they may also be harmful with unreasonable expectations and guilt. If the parents are cutting their adult kid down by comparing them to siblings or other adults, they can get empathy in other areas of their lives, whether empathizing with their experience of aging, health problems, or troubles in their extended family. However, they may not get empathy in the area in which they refuse to listen to their kid’s limits.
And for those who struggle with reorganizing empathy themselves, therapy can help people lay out, talk about, and suss out what a relationship has looked like, whether with a friend, partner, parents, or a co-worker, to see more of what’s going on in that relationship (or areas of that relationship). When we look at the relationship together, we can note the areas where empathy is needed and when it might be unhelpfully given, and decide where can you use this superpower, where is it dangerous to use it, and what you need before you use it in this relationship.