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The surprising downsides of empathy

https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200930-can-empathy-be-bad-for-you

bbc.com

The surprising downsides of empathy
There’s a dark side to feeling the emotions of other people. In some cases, it can even lead to cruelty, aggression, and distress.

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A definition of empathy

A definition of empathy

The German word for empathy is "Einfühlung" and was coined in the late 1800s. It means "feeling into."

Empathy is about understanding other peoplee&#...

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Misplaced empathy

In recent years, researchers have found that misplaced empathy can lead to exhaustion and apathy, and prevent you from helping the people who need you.

Worse, people's...

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The identifiable victim effect

Psychologists point out that defining empathy as the act of stepping into someone's mind to experience their feeling can lead to some tricky moral dilemmas.

  • We a...

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Extending empathy to abstract strangers

We naturally have more empathy for people closer to us. Our empathy and affinity for others decline the further people are from us.

But our natural empathy for those close...

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Empathy's incapacitating emotional impact

While shared happiness is a very pleasant state, sharing someone's suffering, such as a loved one, can be very difficult.

Our brain activity in the regions associated with pai...

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The difference between empathy and compassion

  • Empathy is about stepping into someone's shoes.
  • Compassion is a feeling of concern for another person's suffering, which moves the person ...

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Sympathy vs. empathy

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The three types of empathy

Empathy is the ability to share another person's emotions after having reached a good understanding of their suffering. There are three main types of empathy:

  • Cognitive empathy, which is defined as the ability to understand and to share someone else's emotions by imagining one's self in their shoes
  • Emotional empathy, which is based on shared feelings
  • Compassionate empathy, which is characterized by the need to actually help the other.

The threats of being emphatic

While empathy can make both you and the ones around feel better at times, there are also important dangers worth taking into account:

  • Empathy can often lead to unjustified anger
  • It can cause guilt and thinking that your own happiness has come at the cost or may have even caused another person's misery.
  • it can result in a great amount of fatigue.

The Compassion Collapse

We all see suffering around us, whether it is the inhumane treatment of migrants or minority groups, or any depressing news of diseases, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed.

As the number o...

Just Sympathy is Useless

Tragic stories and imagery make us sympathetic and wanting to help.

But a recent study reveals that the feeling of sympathy is not proportional to the help given by the person. A desire to help, or to contribute is more valuable for any tangible or fruitful result.

Feelings of sympathy do not necessarily lead to any action to end the suffering - they may cause a feeling of helplessness.

First-hand Knowledge

When people have the first-hand experience of pain and suffering, the desire to help arises from deep within, as they know the intricate details, and are motivated to help others who are in peril. This is called the Altruism born of suffering.

People who haven't experienced similar hardships themselves will find it hard to relate to others suffering. However, the desire to help can be invoked by showing them the effectiveness of the method, as well as the larger picture.

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The neurobiology of affiliation is the new scientific field that describes the neural, endocrine, and behavioral systems sustaining our capacity to love. There are three factors in the neurobiology of bonding:

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  • The affiliative brain
  • Synchrony.

Oxytocin and attachment

Oxytocin - a large molecule produced by neurons in the hypothalamus - is known for coordinating bonding, sociality, and group living. Oxytocin targets mainly the amygdala, a center for fear and vigilance, the hippocampus, and the striatum, a locus of motivation and reward.

Oxytocin is released through the central part of the neuron as well as its extensions, called dendrites. The dendrites increase oxytocin release whenever attachment memories are used and prime us for a lifetime. Early attachment memories help us move without fear. It imprints the infant's brain with distinct social patterns.