Misplaced empathy - Deepstash

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The surprising downsides of empathy

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 empathetic tendencies can be used to manipulate them into aggression and cruelty.

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Sympathy vs. empathy
Sympathy vs. empathy

Although many people tend to confuse the notions of empathy and sympathy, these two are quite different.

While sympathy implies only the fact of feeling concerned about someone, empathy goes way beyond that and it might result in harming the person who is displaying and feeling it.

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 of people needing help reaches epic proportions, it becomes less likely for us to initiate any help. This paradox is known as the compassion collapse and is a feeling of jadedness mixed with helplessness to the enormity of the situation.

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.

Altering the brain
Altering the brain

In 2005, studies began to point out that meditation can change the structure of your brain by thickening the cortex. The cortex controls your attention and emotions.

You can reap the benefits if you practice meditation for half an hour a day over eight weeks.

Mindfulness meditation

It typically refers to a practice for training your attention. It is an awareness that comes through paying attention in the moment, but non-judgmentally.

It involves sitting down with closed eyes and focussing on feeling your breath go in and out. When your attention starts to wander, you take note and bring your attention back to your breath.

Reduced amygdala activity

Meditation shows reduced activity in the amygdala, our brain’s threat detector. When the amygdala perceives a threat, it sets off the fight-flight-freeze response.

In a study, after practicing mindfulness for 20 minutes per day over just one week, participants showed reduced amygdala reactivity only while they were engaged in mindfulness, suggesting they need regular practice.