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The Dark Side Of Empathy

I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word ‘empathy’ it feels like a positive word. That’s why I was so surprised to see an article from the BBC stating there was a dark side to empathy. It made me do a bit of research.   


So, what is empathy?  

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Sorry to bring up the ‘C’ word again, but the Covid pandemic taught a lot of businesses a valid lesson – that their leaders needed the ability to lead, both through good and bad times. And to have a key competency and skill – empathy.   

Forbes shared that “one fascinating study analysing data of 6,731 managers in 38 countries found that managers who practice compassionate leadership toward direct reports are viewed as better performers by their bosses. And on the flip side, leaders rated as empathetic by their team were also rated as high performing by their boss.”    

Empathy helps us to connect with others, understand their feelings, and respond in a thoughtful and compassionate way. Empathy helps you become a kind leader when handled correctly.  

Expert Brene Brown has 4 steps to practise empathy: 

  • Trying to see things from someone else’s perspective. 
  • Staying out of judgment by listening and seeking to understand.
  • Recognising emotions someone else is feeling.
  • Communicating that you understand an emotion.

Empathy is not to be confused with sympathy.   

Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and feel what they are feeling.   

Sympathy is feeling compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person is experiencing. Sympathy is usually communicated around adverse scenarios and can be shown through commiseration and pity. It’s feeling sorry for someone else’s misfortune, but not seeing it from their viewpoint.   

This is the critical difference between empathy and sympathy – instead of feeling with someone, you’re feeling for them.  

With empathy, you’re experiencing a fraction of their emotions and feelings because you see things from their perspective. 

However, there are also potential downsides to empathy, which can be damaging to both ourselves and others. 


The research behind the dark side 

Researchers have found that being too empathetic can lead to exhaustion and apathy. Renowned researcher and author Brene Brown has studied the concept of empathy for many years. In an article for Harvard Business Review, she outlined the main dark side of empathy, which she calls ‘empathy fatigue’.  


What is empathy fatigue? 

Empathy fatigue occurs when we’re overwhelmed by the emotions of another person. It can lead to burnout, physical exhaustion, and even depression. Brown notes that it can be especially dangerous for those in the medical or psychological support professions including psychologists, therapists, and coaches, who are vulnerable to ‘compassion fatigue’ – burnout caused by listening to others’ stories of trauma and suffering. 

Empathy fatigue can also lead to feelings of resentment and frustration, as we become overwhelmed by the emotions of the people around us. This can manifest in unhealthy ways, such as avoiding conversations with friends or colleagues or becoming disinterested in their problems to maintain more distance. We may start to feel like we’re not doing enough to help, or that no matter what we do, it’s never enough. 

Empathy fatigue is a defence mechanism; it’s our body’s way of telling us to pay attention and to take a step back to care for ourselves. 


Empathy leads to poor decision making 

Empathy can also be a double-edged sword when it comes to resolving conflicts. Instead of trying to find a win-win solution, we may become so wrapped up in trying to understand the other person’s perspective that we forget to look out for our own needs. Moreover, if we become too emotionally invested in a situation, we can become easily overwhelmed and unable to come to a resolution or help someone else to help themselves. I recognise this scenario where I notice I must put my own needs first if someone else’s troubles are affecting me to the point where I’m taking them on myself.


Manipulation through fake empathy 

Finally, false empathy can be used to manipulate and control other people. People with narcissistic tendencies, for example, often use their insight into others’ emotions to their advantage. They may feign empathy to gain someone’s trust and then use that trust to manipulate or exploit them. In addition, people who have a history of trauma may use their understanding of other people’s emotions to manipulate them, leading to further pain and suffering. 


In conclusion, empathy is an essential tool for understanding and connecting with others. However, it can also lead to burnout and resentment, as well as being used to manipulate and control.   

We must be mindful of the potential drawbacks of empathy and be aware of our own limits and boundaries. By consciously setting and maintaining clear boundaries and ensuring that we have someone safe to talk to like a professional or trusted friend, we can ensure that we’re not overwhelmed by the emotions of others, and that we can use empathy in a healthy and constructive way. 

To learn how to become an empathetic and strong leader, contact us today

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