Empathy means a lot of things to a lot of people. But among all the variations on this particular theme, two ideas are usually consistently present. First, empathy is about understanding other people and, second, there is an emotional piece to it. It goes beyond just “getting what someone is about”. It goes deeper. As President Clinton famously put it, someone who experiences empathy “feels your pain”.
Obviously, types who rely more on their emotions when deciding things usually lean toward being empathetic. Those who depend on logic can analyze what is going with a person, but the added experience of connecting with someone’s feelings may not be as readily available to them. Some will sit in a movie theater watching a film and cry their eyes out at the sad ending. Others will sit puzzled and thinking about a scene at the beginning that made no sense.
We typically think of those with less empathy as those who need to be “fixed”. There is a cultural bias in favor of the more empathic. And surely having too little empathy makes it’s harder to build a relationships of any depth. Having only a rational sense of a person has its limitations. People are both emotional and intellectual beings. A broader relationship involves tapping into both.
On the other hand, can there be too much empathy? Codependence was a bit of an overused word a few decades back. However, it carried with it, in part, the idea that it’s not good to merge too much of your identity with another person’s. A couple of the dangers that may come with such a merger are that you begin to lose your own identity, and you become too burdened with the other person’s problems. Enabling someone’s addiction because you feel their pain is neither helpful for you nor the addict, for example. Feeling someone’s pain can be healthy. Adopting it altogether is something else. If too much empathy isn’t codependence, it can certainly mimic its symptoms.
The ancient philosophers advised us, “All things in moderation.” Empathy is no different. And when talking about empathy, there is a range. It’s not either / or. There are many shades of empathy between “No empathy” and “Excessive empathy”. This range includes a reasonable middle zone.
Those of particular personality types who feel they may not have enough empathy might want to consider trying to develop it. Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is not like IQ which is fixed at one point early in life. Many who study such things feel a person can develop and nurture EQ throughout a lifetime. It doesn’t seem like it would hurt anything for people who feel they need it to try to develop more empathy. And it could vitally help in the relationship department.
Those who lose themselves in others through excessive empathy may want to explore what motivates them to do so. Usually it has something to do with wanting to feel needed or loved, but there can be many reasons. Only self-examination will provide the answer.
Empathy is a good quality to have. Learning to experience it in a balanced way can make life more complete.
So, how healthy is your empathy?