The Trouble with Empathy

Empathy can be defined as the ability to understand or share the feelings of another person, without those feelings being explicitly made known. Empathic people often find themselves in caretaker roles in their families, helper roles in their professions, and fixer roles in their relationships.

What’s the trouble with being a caretaker or a helper or a fixer? Aren’t those good things to be?

Let me be clear: I’m a therapist. Clearly a helping profession. I love what I do! And I may or may not have dabbled in many, many relationships in my personal life where my role as “fixer” was more than obvious (and a role I clung to…more on that in another blog post).

Our capacity for empathy can be a gift, no doubt. And no doubt my ability to empathize with my clients has led to positive therapeutic relationships that have been crucial for healing.

Other times, however, this gift can totally backfire on us.

In families, empathy can look like minimizing the abuse you suffered at the hands of an alcoholic mother because you “knew she was in a lot of pain after the divorce”. It can mean the trauma your nervous system suffered through a childhood where your sibling with autism got the majority of your parents’ attention goes unnoticed for years because you “loved your sister with all your might”, “had great parents and knew they were doing the best they could”, and “didn’t need much anyhow”.

In relationships, empathy can look like being able to see the good in someone despite their flaws and the way those flaws wear on your connection. It can look like giving someone a pass on their behavior because you can “understand” why they act the way they do. (Hey, you didn’t take that Psychology class for nothing!)

Professionally, empathy can look like working your ass off under an abusive narcissistic boss for years because you’re “here for the clients” and “don’t want to let anyone down”.

Here, let me a share a personal story…

This was me. This was my life. Over, and over again (4x over to be exact…and that’s just professionally speaking!). Turns out empathic people attract narcissists, and vice versa. This is a very common dynamic.

You can read more on that here.

And for me, this dynamic has been all too common in my life. For years, I worked in substance abuse treatment under bosses (multiple) who one minute would puff up my ego and tell me I could conquer the world, and the next minute would tell me I was a worthless, expendable piece of shit, make me feel small, sexually harass me, threaten me, and on and on.

Finally, I got out. I organically built up a private practice on the side, and when the time was right (not perfect, but right enough), I quit. I felt tremendous relief (and panic too, of course, because I had no clue what I was doing building a private practice… but mostly relief). I finally got myself back into my own therapy and worked through some crap around narcissistic abuse. I built up my practice, and was feeling some semblance of success in my life! Yay!

And then, the unimaginable happened. I received an offer I could not turn down to take a job working for someone I thought I trusted. When I say I couldn’t turn it down, that’s because it was the kind of opportunity that would be life-changing for my daughter (she’s just about 2 years old, and let’s face it, I’d do absolutely anything for that cute, sassy little girl). So, I took it. I said goodbye to my practice, and spent the summer working for my new boss. After 2 months of not getting paid, the writing on the wall was clear and I soon realized the truth of my situation: once again, I found myself working for not just a narcissist, but a truly delusional sociopath. Even better. What the hell?!

Here’s what happened next:

Wait for it…

SHAME. POW. Feeling stupid, “too” trusting, “too” caring, “too” understanding, etc. When our boundaries get violated because we have been empathetic to another (I totally “got” all the reasons why the money wasn’t coming in, every week), it can feel like betrayal – the ultimate emotional violation. And from that place, how easy is it for us to spiral into self-preservation mode, resenting those we trust and those we support?

But here’s the thing, I don’t want to ever lose the part of myself that trusts people. The part of myself that cares, that understands, that EMPATHIZES. Of course I don’t. It’s my gift. And quite frankly, it’s pretty easy to lose in a culture that champions individualism and cynicism.

What I have learned, however, is like all gifts, empathy needs to be understood and most of all, it needs to be boundaried.

Overall – the trouble with empathy is that it often goes hand in hand with bad boundaries.

It often goes hand in hand with honoring others over ourselves, our own needs, our own comfort.

My friend and colleague, Elizabeth Gillette, over at Heirloom Counseling, wrote an awesome blog post on this recently. I highly encourage you to check it out!

Over the coming days and weeks, I invite you to check in with your own experiences with empathy. Are you an empathic person? Have you ever suffered personally or professionally because of your ability to empathize with others? I’m so curious! I’d love to hear from you if you’re willing to share your experiences. Comment below if you’re reading this on my blog or simply hit reply to this e-mail if you're reading this in your inbox. If you’re not already on my e-mail list, you can subscribe here to get more content on relationships, addiction, and anger (plus plenty of free goodies and extra resources) automatically sent to your inbox, week by week. 

Thanks for reading! Take good care of yourself and I’ll talk to you next week.