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 order to soothe ourselves.
Empathic distress can also take the form of physical symptoms and a desire to ﬂee. In one case, a man, Francis, couldn’t get through the ﬁrst day of a weekend men’s retreat before he regretted being there. Another participant had shared a story about his abusive girlfriend, and it had upset Francis so much that he started experiencing stomach cramps.
The difference between empathic distress and healthy compassion is our ability to keep our own nervous system steady. The Dalai Lama is reputed to exemplify healthy compassion. When he was told of a horriﬁc death, onlookers reported seeing shock, then sadness flash quickly across his face, after which he seemed to move seamlessly into a place of equanimity. People with healthy compassion can respond to a crisis with the full range of appropriate human emotions without shutting down or becoming emotionally triggered.
Similarly, doctors and health care workers are often perceived as having some kind of special power that allows them to impassively witness suffering. But the ability to fully observe the pain of others and stay engaged without overreacting is actually an example of what it means to experience healthy compassion.
Pain in the Brain
If healthy empathy means that your brain responds to the pain of others almost as if you were experiencing it yourself, a hypersensitive person in a state of empathic distress could “feel” another person’s pain even more intensely than the actual victim.
Today’s neuroscientists believe that this hypersensitivity is a result of both nature and nurture: ﬁrst, the natural, genetic predisposition of our brains for resiliency, and second, our individual history of unresolved emotional trauma from childhood or another stage of our lives. Unﬁnished emotional business is almost always a factor for those suffering with empathic distress. In our earlier example, it turned out that Keith’s father had left the family when Keith was three, and his mother suffered from severe alcoholism. Having grown up constantly managing chaos and fear, by the time he reached adulthood his tolerance for crisis had been stretched paper thin.
Fortunately, research also tells us that due to the brain’s plasticity and ability to heal, the condition called empathic distress can be resolved.
The ﬁrst and most important step in the process of healing is to recognize a basic truth: as counterintuitive and unloving as it may seem, no one is fully responsible for another person—neither for their feelings nor for how their life path unfolds. With time and effort, we can rebuild stronger emotional boundaries that give us a sense of separation between our own reality and responsibility and those of another. It means we can walk in the moccasins of another without being frantic that they might step in quicksand. And we’ll be able to listen supportively without wanting to run for the hills. —S&H
Learning to Live with Another’s Pain
Do you suffer from “empathic distress”? Try these four resources to find a greater sense of stability and peace:
1. Read books by Pia Mellody (Facing Love Addiction or Facing Codependence) and Melody Beattie (The New Codependency) for ideas and advice.
2. Attend 12-step meetings, such as Co-Dependents Anonymous, for a community of support.
3. Work with a licensed therapist trained in trauma resolution, such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing and somatic psychotherapy, to address the roots of your empathic distress.
4. Learn more about the neuroscience of excessive empathy by reading Pathological Altruism, edited by Barbara Oakley.