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Empathic to a Fault?

Therapists Seana McGee and Maurice Taylor explain the dark side of compassion.

Katie called her husband, Keith, from the roadside. “Er . . . honey,” she started, “now, everything’s perfectly fine, but . . .” she hesitated, determined to be calm, “I’ve been in a teeny-tiny fender bender.”“What?” Keith exploded, “Oh, my God! You aren’t injured, are you?”“Keith, I told you, sweetie, I’m just fine!”“No,” he countered. “I had a really bad feeling when you left the house this morning. I knew you weren’t feeling well. I shouldn’t have let you go!”“Honey, please,” Katie pleaded,“I told you I’m OK. I just need you to pick me up.”Katie was actually pretty shaken up by the accident, but past crises with Keith had taught her to downplay them. In fact, somehow, she always ended up comforting him.Keith’s reaction is a classic example of empathic distress, an emotional state characterized by the inability to tolerate the perceived pain or suffering of another.Ironically, overidentifying with someone else’s plight can actually prevent us from being able to play a supportive role. This condition is not terribly different from severe codependence, in which we want to control the reality of another in …

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