If there is one social lubricant we all need aplenty in our life it would be well-nigh empathy. It allows us to form and sustain relationships and when something goes wrong, recover from them. It helps us to feel the felt—that is, metaphorically putting our self into other’s shoes.
However, could there be another side to empathy? Are we barking up the right tree when encouraging people to cultivate empathy, from business to health care professionals?
Before we answer the above question, it is helpful to define what empathy really is: succinctly, it is our ability to ‘feel with others’ or sharing the feelings. If you are feeling sad, an empathetic acquaintance might be able to sense it and may even respond in kind—that is, by feeling sad. That is how we feel the felt.
It does not hurt to see our loved one feeling what we feel—and exhibiting it through their actions and facial expressions. That allows us to lubricate and cement our ties.
In normal day to day life, and also in professions which don’t deal with suffering that much, there may not be much cost to being empathetic.
But the story turns very different when we start thinking of professions (e.g. healthcare) which deal with human suffering all the time. In those encounters, being empathetic is not without a cost—and the cost is often subtle and cumulative. No wonder burnout among healthcare providers often is very high.
Some of the studies are supporting this idea that encouraging people to develop empathy itself may not be such a useful idea, especially for those immersed in suffering on a regular basis. One recent study by Klimecki and her colleagues have shown that participants undergoing empathy training exhibited a lot more emotional resonance with others but also showed a high degree of emotional negativity—that, even though they were able to empathize with others, they carried the traces of emotional negativity after the encounter was over.
In the same study, participants were also trained to be compassionate, in other words, the ability to ‘feel with others’. It turns out that the participants who underwent compassion training reported higher emotional positivity. This study also highlighted that the different areas of the brain are activated during compassion training.
Seminal research (and some Eastern traditions) support the idea that compassion training may be a better strategy to immunize against the distresses of others. This may even be more useful for healthcare professionals who are exposed to ever-present sorrows on a daily basis.
Being empathetic may be a good start on humanizing our relationships, but settling on it as a singular coping strategy may even be harmful, especially for those who have to navigate intense human woes as part of their professional responsibilities.
If you are interested in learning to be mindful, please join me. Our next Intro to Mindfulness Practice course starts on May 29, 2015. More information is here.