Empathy Isn't Always Enough

Validating someone's pain and/or suffering is necessary.  It helps to create trust, alleviate other's mental discomfort, and lead to being present (not in the past or future).

Empathy is an important part of true validation of someone's feelings.  It's a pre-requisite to acting compassionately.

However, empathy can be mistaken for the end of the game.  We feel their pain.  And we think this is good enough.

How empathy can be bad:

  • creates co-dependency (pathological altruism)
  • prevents "tough love"
  • biases solutions to alleviate empather
  • pushes us towards easy acts that reduce cognitive load
  • can lead to ineffective solutions
  • misplaced tunnel-vision compassion

Empathy is an Inward Reaction

Empathy, feeling someone else's pain, isn't always great though.  When we have empathy we feel pain.  When this happens, our focus becomes on alleviating our own stress, instead of theirs.

If we're exposed someone to pain (empathically), our heart rate will tell us whether we're good or bad.  If heart rate increases we'll focus on ourselves, if it decreases we'll be able to focus on others.

More evidence:

  • increasing someone's cognitive load, makes them less pro-social toward strangers
  • when people are hungry, they are less charitable
  • socially exclusion leads to less generosity and empathy
  • deceased glucocorticoids (less stress) leads to greater empathy towards strangers (in other words, high stress leads to self-centered perspectives/acts)

It's attachment vs. compassion. Compassion isn't always doing the nice thing, it's doing the right thing regardless how we or they feel. 

 "Empathic states are most likely to produce compassionate acts when manage a detached distance" - Robert Sapolsky

What to Do

"the point is not who's pain pains us the most, but who most needs our help" -Rober Sapolsky

First we need to see people through an empathic lens. Then we need to detach ourselves to be able to make the right decisions to effectively help others.

The less emotional reaction, the better the intellectual decision, the more effective the support.