When empathy hurts

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When empathy hurts

The ability to feel someone else’s pain or joy, as one’s own, is considered a boon and a necessary ability for many professions – a doctor, teacher, psychologist. But how not to cross the line beyond which empathy is harmful not only to those who empathize, but also to the object of our sympathy?

“Most people believe that empathy is the ability to put yourself in the shoes of another person,“ walk in his shoes, ”comments Tatyana Efremova, psychologist, gestalt therapist. – Psychologists specify that this is empathy with a person’s state, but without loss of a sense of self. There are two types of empathy. Emotional – reflection of the feelings of another with your feelings. And cognitive – the ability to understand how a person thinks.

Our vision of empathy as the basis of kindness and morality is very clear. But upon closer examination, it is a bad moral guideline, because it makes it impossible to help in the long run. It provokes false judgments, indifference and cruelty. It leads to irrational and unfair political decisions. I am against excessive empathy. “

The expert gives an example to confirm his position.

Imagine: a 10-year-old girl is in a terminal stage of brain cancer and is in severe pain, which ordinary medicines can no longer cope with. Suppose you work in a clinic and can move it a little higher in the operation waiting list. What would you do? This question was asked in a study conducted by social psychologist Daniel Batson of the University of Kansas.

Living someone else’s pain activates the same neural networks as when experiencing one’s own

When the respondents were described in detail the situation, they understood that there were children in the queue who needed more help. But when they first asked to imagine the pain of the very 10-year-old girl, they suggested putting her name in front of other children.

“Here empathy outweighed justice and led to an immoral decision,” said Tatyana Efremova. “The response to the suffering of the child was provoked by empathy – the ability to put oneself in the place of another, which many consider to be a gift.”

Research in neuropsychology and neurophysiology has confirmed that empathy affects the health of those who experience it. Living someone else’s pain activates the same neural networks as when experiencing your own.

“If this happens chronically, it can significantly affect the state of health, because a person receives a multiple increase in his own stress due to the pain of others,” explains the psychologist. In addition, empathy is a kind of spotlight. It highlights people who find themselves in the field of our empathy. Empathy forces us to take care of the “chosen ones”, but it fades into the background or even leaves out the long-term consequences of our actions. “Blinds” us, deprives us of sympathy for the suffering of others in the present and future.

When empathy hurts

“This can be observed in African countries. Charitable assistance destroys the economy, as goods and products from developed countries compete and ruin local farmers and producers. Helping one, we harm many, ”Tatyana Efremova is convinced.

An overly empathetic psychologist is at risk. May lose the ability to help or even hurt. He risks “drowning” in emotions after the client, losing the vision of the situation as a whole.

The ability to be a good parent can also suffer from excessive empathy. “Too penetrated by the suffering of another, fearing to cause short-term pain now, you will not be able to help him in the long run,” the psychologist comments. “For example, you need to prick your finger today to get a blood test done.” It hurts, but it helps to recognize the disease in time and save the child tomorrow.

Parents are often forced to force their children to do what they don’t want at the moment, but what will benefit them in the future is to do their homework, eat vegetables, wash their hands, go to bed on time, and visit a dentist. If especially sensitive mothers and fathers do not insist on an unpleasant action now, sparing the baby, they thereby deprive him of experience and prevent him from adapting in adulthood. ”

It is necessary to train to analyze the facts, to look at things consciously, not to succumb to the first emotional impulse

Empathy is short-sighted. It motivates us to do things that may seem right now, but lead to tragic consequences in the future.

“Imagine that an eight-year-old girl got very sick due to a low-quality vaccine. You are a vaccine development project manager, a sensitive person, you see her suffering, you are talking to her and her family. You want this to not happen again. But if you stop the vaccination program, guided by emotions, ten more children will die. You will not see their eyes, you will not hear the crying parents. They are just soulless statistics. This decision is emotionally further from you than the desire to help the one girl who is nearby. ”

You can learn not to cross the line beyond which empathy becomes dangerous. It is necessary to train to analyze the facts, to look at things consciously, not to succumb to the first emotional impulse. And to know that every phenomenon and concept always has at least two sides.

Tatyana Efremova

About the expert

Tatyana Efremova – psychologist, psychotherapist, leading groups, workshops and trainings. Works in approaches: gestalt therapy, transactional analysis, coaching, cognitive-behavioral therapy. Advises and leads groups in Russian and English. Member of the Professional Guild of Psychologists and the European Association of Transactional Analysis. Her website.

Text: Olga Kochetkova-Korelova
Photo Source: Getty images

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