How Empathy Can Go Wrong: 3 Hazards to Watch For

Judy knows that her husband, Tom, drinks too much. But she also knows that he grew up in an abusive home. Judy sees how Tom’s self-esteem plummets every time he visits his parents. She sees how hard he works to prove to himself, his parents, and herself, that he’s good enough. Judy feels Tom’s emotions every time she looks at him. She gets angry and hurt when he drinks so much, but she also feels his pain.

Todd, 20-years-old, understands that his father is well-known for his business success. His father has made many millions by buying and selling businesses and has his own company with 10,000 employees worldwide. Todd knows that his father has huge responsibilities on his shoulders, and can sometimes see the strain that his father lives under. This is what he reminds his younger teenage siblings (and himself) of when they are angry or hurt by their father’s verbal abuse.

Tina is a 42-year-old mother of three. She works full-time in the Intensive Care Unit of a local hospital. Tina is an empathetic and caring person, and others know this. She is typically the first one asked by her co-workers to cover an extra shift. She is the first one asked by the PTO president of her children’s school to organize and run a new committee. Tina can be counted on to say yes because she readily feels others’ stress and need, and always wants to be helpful whenever she can.

Of all of the emotions that we humans experience, one is generally believed, by psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists and neuroscientists alike, to rise above the rest.

Empathy. It consists of feeling another person’s feelings.

We can get angry, we can feel guilty. We can be frustrated or anxious. We can grieve or feel sadness, regret or resentment. But none makes a statement about who we are as a person, or about the nature of the human race like empathy does.

It’s the glue that binds a family, the bond that helps two people resolve conflict. It’s a salve for pain and an essential ingredient in resilient romantic love. If you’re a parent, you must have it for your children in order to raise them to be healthy and strong adults.

Study after study has shown empathy’s surprising power. Empathy can motivate a wife to protect her husband, spur a man to care for his elderly mother, and even reduce the pain of an electric shock. Therapists know that when they can feel a patient’s feelings, it is a healing force for positive change.

Most people would never think of it, but empathy does sometimes go haywire. This best part of the human spirit can turn against us and, unchecked, it can damage both the empathizer and the recipient. Being aware of the risks of empathy-gone-bad is both incredibly important and vastly helpful.

3 Hazards of Empathy

1. By being excessive: This happens when you feel someone else’s emotions so deeply that you are blinded by them. Too much empathy can allow unhealthy or damaging behaviors to continue when they really shouldn’t.

Example Judy: Judy’s empathy is getting in her way because it’s preventing her from setting limits with Tom. Tom needs to hear Judy say, “I can’t take your drinking any more. It’s hurting the kids and me, and it’s hurting you. I need you to deal with your drinking problem. Now.” And he needs her to mean it. But Judy feels so much of Tom’s pain that she can’t make herself hold him accountable. This is where empathy becomes enabling, and how it can harm everyone involved.

2. By being misdirected: This happens when you feel the emotions of someone who doesn’t deserve it. Misdirected empathy makes the empathizer vulnerable to exploitation by the recipient.

Example Todd: Now an adult, Todd is being unable to hold his father accountable for the damage he is doing to himself and his siblings. He’s essentially giving his father a “pass” for his bad behavior because of his empathy for him. In this way Todd’s empathy is misplaced. By failing to protect himself from his father’s bad behavior, Todd is risking his own happiness and health (and that of his younger siblings). For this he will, all of his life, pay a heavy price.

3. By being too indiscriminate: This happens when you take a “shotgun approach” to empathy. You offer it too freely to too many people. When your empathy is free for the asking, you end up giving too much to too many people.

Example Tina: Tina has multiple responsibilities in her life: her children, her husband, her ICU patients, and herself. Yet none of these people gets as much of her time and energy as they deserve. That’s because Tina’s inability to let others manage their own stress and problems leads her to spread herself too thin. Depleted by the demands, Tina often feels exhausted and irritable around her children and husband. She wonders why she keeps gaining weight, and why there are dark circles under her eyes.

So Judy is enabling her husband, Todd is failing to protect himself, and Tina is harming herself (and by extension her family) by over-extending herself to others. These are three examples of how empathy can work against you.

How to Keep Your Empathy Healthy

  1. Be aware of when you’re feeling empathy and for whom. Make sure that the person receiving it deserves it.
  2. Keep your empathy in check. Make sure it doesn’t prevent you from holding a loved one accountable for his or her actions.
  3. Always prioritize your own needs. Take care of yourself before you care for others. That way you’ll be sure that your empathy can’t harm you.

Those who grow up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) learn early on that their feelings and needs don’t matter. This sets them up to be overly empathetic with others’ needs, and underly attentive to their own.

To learn more about CEN, emotions and how they affect relationships, Take the Emotional Neglect Test and see the books, Running on Empty and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

A version of this article was originally published on PsychCentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author.

Jonice

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Cheryl - October 26, 2019 Reply

This article on empathy was concisely on point for me. I resembled those three hazard signs–with the help of your first book, Dr. Webb, I now am able to step back from my automatic responses and “see” the situation more clearly BEFORE placing my empathy. I still find that I am too sensitive to other people’s situations and have major trust issues so there is work to be done but I’m getting there!

    Jonice - October 27, 2019 Reply

    Good work Cheryl! Keep it up.

Bridget - October 22, 2019 Reply

That was something I can really relate to. Having what sounds like CEN and raising a medically fragile child has clearly caused me to over emphasize with her and led to me doing too much for her.
Another thing is, when I read all the ways I have the same issues as what you have written, I feel undeserving and guilty for thinking I have these issues. Also, when I am ill I feel like the only way I deserve or am entitled to any sympathy or care is only when I am really sick.
I am 59 and have had all these thing you talk about for as long as I can remember. I also have a history of pretty bad emotional and physical childhood abuse from my mother.
I had some therapy recently but it put me off as he was critical and blaming. As well as not seeming to care.
Look forward to reading more. Just started your book, R O E.

    Jonice - October 24, 2019 Reply

    Dear Bridget, the doubts you express about your own experience are very common for CEN people. I’m very glad you’re reading Running On Empty! I think you will find answers and direction in it.

    Cheryl - October 26, 2019 Reply

    Oh, Bridget, I am so sorry you ran into one of those judgey therapists! Hope you will persist in believing in you and try another. Find someone who has real empathy–like Dr. Jonice Webb talks about in the article. I write this because you sound so much like me! I am only a couple of years older than you but likely have been on this recovery from CEN journey longer. Recognizing in myself the kind of self belittling you describe was key to then seeing where it came from and it was not from the little girl I was; it was from so much around me. Unintentional or not, it was hurtful to who I grew up to be. Once I could see, as you state, that I felt I didn’t deserve to be cared for unless I was REALLY REALLY sick, and then when I realized where it came from, I could start to work on taking care of me at all times. I found a CEN therapist from the list and things have turned around. Self care is now the basis for every day, if in little ways, like dancing in the shower to finding a CEN person to talk to, to stepping out to reply when my inclination is still to be a hermit. You can do it! Good luck! (And keep loving your medically fragile child; the healthier you get the better you can do so)

Caroline - October 22, 2019 Reply

I realise from your book I have CEN issues. But don’t tecognise many of the results. For instance I don’t really feel empathy for people. I can sympathise and I do tend to be a people pleaser.
However I have unmanageable level of empathy for animals at risk. I feel their distress as if I it is me or my child. . I cannot watch or hear or talk about anything that involves animal harm, even fiction. Why is my empathy so intense and yet limited. Small children being hurt effects me too but not in that extreme way. Like acute grief. I’ve learnt to block situations ie not allow my mind to go there and avoid bad news etc. But that is all.

    Jonice - October 24, 2019 Reply

    Hi Caroline, every single human being is different. Often, we block parts of our feelings that are too personal or painful or were too unacceptable in our childhood homes. Please think about how CEN happened to you and put your energy toward connecting with your own feelings in general.

Steve Barham - October 21, 2019 Reply

The “dark trap” of empathy.
I try not to Empathize.
I try not to Sympathize…
I cultivate Compassion…
Feeling other’s PAIN…does me no good, and as we see can be a trap.
Sympathy can be “in agreement WITH” someone’s pain or plight. Or..simply “feeling sorry” about it…with not much else…

Compassion is the DESIRE to alleviate Suffering… That is something we can work for… Betterment…
I would NOT talk to Tom and demand he stop drinking…he would become defensive. Drinking is his COMFORT BLANKET against his parents…you don’t tug the blanket, he will HIT YOU to defend and KEEP his ONLY COURSE OF DEALING WITH MOM AND DAD… you get him a BOOK… that teaches him to handle his emotions about his mom and dad… THEN he can give up the blanket… HE is NOT the problem…his Parents ARE…. Target the REAL PROBLEM…
If Todd confronts his father… he will be disowned… so… he targets his father’s STRESS… gets his father a book that teaches him a technique to handle his stress, and stop his workaholic obsession… which maybe to dodge fighting with the WIFE…It is not about Todd, or his siblings…it is about dad’s stress….

TINA, is the only one with a real chance…she is not dealing with potential ABUSE to her…she can learn to say, “No”… good books on Codependency, and learning to say “no”…
Judy and Todd have MORE potential of being abused, if they try to deal with things head on…They should target the REAL CAUSE… Tom’s Drinking is not the real cause… Todd’s issue is not the real cause…

Target the cause… Target the Emotions…

Good Article…

    Jonice - October 21, 2019 Reply

    Thank you for sharing your comment and perspective.

Deb Lord - October 21, 2019 Reply

At 64 it has taken all these years to find what is wrong with me. CEN is real and I need some direction.

    Jonice - October 21, 2019 Reply

    Dear Deb, have you joined my newsletter? Watched my free videos or read my books? There is lots of help and direction in those resources. I invite you to make use of all of them. All my best to you!

KJQ - October 20, 2019 Reply

Interesting. Having read your books I was certain that I suffer from CEN, but I don’t relate to any of the 3 ways one has/handles empathy. In my case I have no empathy for anyone, and am not aware of any feelings at all of my own except anger/bitterness/rage. Is it because I was emotionally and sexually abused as a young boy (in addition to CEN) that I have no empathy for others? My wife of 25 years also suffers from (at least) CEN, so we are basically only roomates because we are both unable to be emotionally vulnerable with each other (any attempts by either of us have resulted in rejection via anger or withdrawal.

    Jonice - October 21, 2019 Reply

    Dear KJQ, abuse does have effects like the ones you describe. Please see a therapist to help you sort through the problems you are dealing with.

Andrea - October 20, 2019 Reply

Had a therapist for 8 years. The last year he stopped taking his meds and started drinking again so his behaviour was erratic and therapy became traumatic. After so many years, I had a lot of empathy for him and his situation so I didn’t quit when I should have. How do I get through a CEN type of experience with a therapist who was helping me with my original CEN?
I doubt I will ever be ok enough to be in a relationship with anyone again.

    Jonice - October 21, 2019 Reply

    Dear Andrea, this is a disturbing story. No therapist should put a client through that, ever! Please try therapy again. The overwhelming majority of therapists mean well and would never behave in this way.

Rose Cook - October 20, 2019 Reply

Excellent article – this perspective is often over looked! Please put me back on your email list.

Karen - October 20, 2019 Reply

This article is a good start on the dangers of empathy — I am tired of seeing empathy put on some sort of pedestal. I am especially weary of people claiming to be “empaths.” We all have empathic abilities, yet some take it to this weird extreme, which becomes invasive, misdirected, misguided, sometimes full of ego, co-dependent, and often wildly assumptive.

    Jonice - October 21, 2019 Reply

    I’m sure there are some empaths who are using the label as an excuse, but many are sensitive people who are trying to make sense of their internal experience. As you say, every helpful concept can be taken awry, unfortunately.

Leave a Comment: