Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Yesterday I read an article about empathy. It suggested that some people have too much empathy, and this can result in them over-prioritizing other people's needs. I disagree. I think it is lack of assertiveness that causes the problem, not high empathy.

We exercise empathy when we understand and share others' feelings. Many forms of meditation encourage this - putting yourself in another's position, so you can experience how life feels for them, and accommodate that in your mind. The capacity to see and take others' perspectives is key to living a fair and just life. In particular, it enables us to take other people's suffering into account.

However, it is unlikely we will eliminate all the suffering in the world with today's actions. Therefore, even though we might see a lot of suffering, we must decide how to use our limited resources. There will be some suffering we choose to actively reduce; and there will be some suffering we decide not to attend to.

Hence, several people might each have the same high level of empathy - but they might decide to behave very differently. One might fall on the floor with grief all day at the world's suffering; another might neglect their own health and security to help others all day; another might be seen living an apparently normal suburban life. It is what they do with their empathy which makes the difference.

If empathy involves feeling, then it becomes relevant to decide how we manage that feeling. Empathy - the ability to sense others' feelings - can be a good perceptual tool, just like the ability to discern colour, or the ability to solve problems.

But empathy need not dominate the social proceedings. In fact, logically, it can't... If two high-empathy people sit there experiencing each others' feelings, then what are they experiencing? Nothing but their own reflection in the other person. They might as well be two mirrors looking at each other.

A good way to manage high empathy is to work on assertiveness - in other words, if you have an ability to sense suffering, match that with a realistic confidence about what you will and will not do to help. You'll still worry about others, but you have a better chance of sleeping at night. There's an awful lot of suffering in the world, and only one you.

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