In a 2006 speech, Barack Obama said: “If we hope to meet the moral test of our times, then I think we’re going to have to talk more about the empathy deficit: the ability to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, to see the world through somebody else’s eyes.” This is a recurring theme in Obama’s speeches; he views empathy as essential for addressing issues like inequality (financial, racial, gender etc.) and resistance to immigration – who knows, a little more empathy between politicians might even render political debates a little less he-said-she-said. Obama is right: empathy is extremely powerful. But is a wholesale prescription of empathy always the answer? Could empathy, like most potent things, be detrimental if we overdose?
The irony of empathy
A disclaimer: empathy is undoubtedly a good quality. It undergirds human evolution; the capacity to be affected by another’s emotional state is crucial to building cohesive and collaborative relationships. But recently neuroscientists have revealed empathy’s darker side. Researcher Tania Singer, for instance, has discovered that an excess of empathy can have serious consequences for our wellbeing and health.
You see, when we actually comme on dit ‘put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes’, we experience their experience. This occurs due to signals received via mirror neurons, which fire when we observe another’s actions. A condition known as ‘mirror-touch synaesthesia’ even causes some people to experience the same physical sensations they see another person experiencing. On some level we all involuntarily ‘mirror’ the behaviour of others. Good literature, theatre, and film aspire to this effect. Yet this mimesis is problematic, because our brains aren’t particularly adept at distinguishing between first- and second-hand data. To expound, Singer ran an experiment in which 16 romantic couples were put into an MRI scanner and given an electric shock. In all participants, centres for emotional and physical pain lit up on the scanner. Then Singer gave only one member from each couple a shock and made the other half observe. When volunteers observed their partner being shocked, their physical pain centres displayed relative inactivity while their emotional centres went off like firecrackers.
What this study revealed is that humans have an ‘empathy for pain’ neural network. Moreover, if we have strong empathic tendencies, the virtual yet vivid visualisation of pain experienced ‘in somebody else’s shoes’ can have the same physiological and psychological affect as if we actually experienced that pain directly. This means that, as neuroscientist Michael J. Poulin remarks, when we truly experience another’s suffering as our own we basically “double the world’s suffering”, which can cause something called ‘empathic distress’. This can increase a person’s aggressiveness and sensitivity to negative emotions. Too much of this can have adverse implications for mental and physical wellbeing. What demands attention here is the tragic irony that, as with any overdose, the excess of a good thing can undercut that thing’s goodness.
Who is at risk?
People particularly ‘at risk’ of catching ‘empathy distress’ are those in caring professions. Let’s take schoolteachers as an example. Stereotypically, the type of person who chooses to become a teacher is often more empathic than, say, a customs official or parking enforcement officer. After all, the hallmark of a brilliant teacher is the importance they place on their vocation’s pastoral role, their ability to connect/empathise with young people and make a difference. Yet, in light of Poulin’s research, this penchant can be detrimental. If a student is going through particularly tough times and the teacher tries too hard to stand in the child’s shoes, they might increase their own levels of psychological distress. Furthermore, many teachers, nurses, doctors, and carers take this pervasive distress home with them. Via emotional contagion, it can spread to their partner, children, and so on.
The worry here is that the more the hypothetical teacher empathises, the more stressed or angry or upset they become, spawning metacognitions that keep them stuck in this negative space (especially if they believe it is their duty to ‘fix’ problems, since problems aren’t always fixable). When in a negative space, the teacher is far less predisposed to effectively help students, since behaviour is mood-dependent. One severe consequence of being ‘stuck’ is ‘empathy burnout’, a state of acute emotional distress that leaves the empathiser cognitively, emotionally, and physically enervated, inhibiting their ability to help the student and increasing risks of psychological ill-health.
Christina Maslach’s The Cost of Caring shows good data on the risks facing care professionals. Likewise, studies on doctors demonstrate how the “erosion of empathy can have a damaging effect on quality of care” because burnout leads to depersonalisation, a self-centred associated with cynicism often brought on by emotional exhaustion or empathic distress, which results in the carer viewing their patients as objects, not subjects. The earnest desire to help can be a hindrance not just to the self but to those we try to help.
The paradox here is that the most caring and empathic individuals make the best carers. Yet they are the most susceptible to empathy burnout. What we need to do is identify caring and highly-empathic groups or people who are ‘bound for burnout’, providing tools and techniques to boundary their empathy, maintain compassion, and protect against burnout. The health and wellbeing of such individuals is integral to our own and that of future generations.
What can we do?
Surprisingly, answers might be found by looking at psychopaths, a societal cross-section with radically low levels of empathy (this isn’t as mad as it might sound). In a 2014 study, neuroscientist Christian Keysers showed a group of psychopathic volunteers images of people in pain. Their brain areas associated with empathy did not respond. However, when he asked the group to consciously empathise, their brain responses resembled those of the control group’s. This showed that we all move along a spectrum of empathy, and can slide between an ‘on’ and ‘off’ state under the right influence, regulating our levels of empathy.
Therefore, a high-risk empathic person can turn the dial down on their levels of empathy and avoid unhelpful distress. But what can fill the space where empathy once was?
Compassion is the key, according to Tania Singer. Her studies with Matthew Ricard (a molecular biologist and Buddhist Monk) revealed that when Ricard used a form of compassionate meditation called loving kindness meditation to associate with traumatic stimuli Ricard’s amygdala (site for threat) and empathy for pain network experienced minimal activity. Whereas, when he was asked to empathise with the same stimuli, he deemed the experience “unbearable”.
Compassion, Singer emphasises, is feeling for and not with the other. It has firmer borders than empathy, guarding the carer against unhelpful distress. Compassion recognises the other’s pain and approaches it with gradually extended love and affection, maintaining a greater level of distance than empathy. This distance might be described as ‘healthy self-interest’, which Singer’s research shows can increase wellbeing. Understanding compassion could be vital to effectively manage high-octane emotional circumstances not just in school life but in business and private affairs too.
Positive has developed versatile tools to regulate and diffuse adverse emotional responses under pressure, enabling rational reappraisal of overly-empathic feelings. Techniques that help us control how we think, feel, and behave are crucial for professional success and wellbeing. For instance, reducing negative self-talk and improving our levels of self-compassion by developing a positive Inner Coach is highly protective and enabling. It benefits both us and those we care for because when we’re feeling good we are more pro-social, open to experience, and we project our positive mood out into the world.
I would like to clarify again: empathy is not a bad thing. But, if we are to truly help people, research shows that unbounded empathy isn’t always advisable. In certain cases, placing borders around the ambit of our empathy and extending careful compassion, ensuring we feel for but do not feel with the pain of another, can place us in the best stead as carers. This helps double wellbeing, instead of doubling distress.