The Destructive Empathy Making a case on the flip side of Empathy
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The Destructive Empathy Making a case on the flip side of Empathy


Empathy is a word that each one of us has heard, practised or even preached on multiple occasions in our lifetime. To be able to ‘put yourself in the other person’s shoes’, ‘be and feel what the other is being and feeling’ – this is nothing but a virtue, right? Being empathetic towards someone else not only provides the support the person might require but may also help boost our self-image as a caring, helpful person with a capacity to understand and aid another individual. It facilitates building relationships, cooperation, and overall social harmony between members of society.

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Then, is it taking it too far to say that this crucial, positive element of our cognitive and affective world can be destructive or damaging? As the COVID-19 pandemic pushed us into isolation, suffering, and facing personal and even financial losses, it can be a little debatable to indicate that there are downsides to empathy. While cultivating and having empathy for the ones around us is necessary, there are certain times that this very same trait or emotion becomes a precursor for self-other-damage.

Read : Empathy vs Sympathy: Understanding the Difference

Often, there may be times that someone wants to help the other person so bad that they ‘over-empathize’. They move their boundaries to accommodate others’ needs. We all might have experienced this. But in this process, our energy gets depleted, sometimes to the extent that we have nothing left to care for our own needs.

As it is said, “We cannot pour from an empty cup”, i.e., until our needs are met and helped, we cannot help any other person to the best of our ability. Otherwise, it becomes an act of self-destruction. People don’t need to make themselves face damage/s to show empathy and understand what another might be going through. It is more about extending kindness towards others while also being kind to ourselves. Therefore yes, empathy is good and valuable only with personal boundaries. While for many setting boundaries may seem like disrespecting others or being selfish, it is nothing but an act of self-care.

Read More: Self Care: What It Is And What It Isn’t

Another significant drawback of empathy may be that it can often be only exercised at an individual level, and not at a societal-macro level. This means that many times while people are empathetic towards one person, they might overlook how that act impacts the surroundings at large. For instance, Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University described the story of Sheri Summers, a 10-year-old girl who had a fatal illness. Although doctors had placed her on a waiting list for a treatment that would help her with her pain, and possibly prolong her life, Sheri was made aware that it might take weeks or even months before she could receive that treatment.

How would an empathetic person want to help Sheri in this case? When Sheri’s (fictional) story was presented to a research study’s participants, asking them to feel empathy for Sheri and help her, around three-quarters sought to move her up the waiting list for her to get an earlier treatment. However, Bloom pointed out that this act of empathy showcased by the participants could mean that every other patient above Sheri on that list would have to face a longer delay, many of whom might be more deserving and need the treatment.

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This is called the ‘identifiable victim effect’. While the empathetic individual’s intentions might be in the right place, just because they are only aware of that one person, that one friend, or that one family member’s condition, they might forget to consider how their actions affect others in the situation. Sometimes empathizing with one person may lead us to be knowingly-unknowingly cruel to others.

It is to clarify at this point that it is in no way being suggested here that as humans we move away from feeling this very vital emotion of being empathetic. That would be highly unreasonable and inhumane at large. Empathy cannot and should not be actively discouraged within ourselves. Often, it is the very essential first step to provide help to others. Yet, what is being advocated for, is ‘reasoned compassion’ rather than ‘wild empathy’; To be mindful of ourselves as well as the larger society while we engage with our ‘empathy compass’. If empathy without any boundaries is self-destruction, empathy with boundaries and an objective-rational perspective is compassion.

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