Empathy: Friend or Foe?

Empathy: Friend or Foe?

Empathy comes naturally to us. From our primate cousins to our newborn babies, humans are wired to perceive and respond to another person’s feelings. It has helped us learn skills, build communities and has saved us from danger. It is our language before we learn to speak a language.

We don’t learn empathy. In fact it is quite the contrary - we are empathic and for healthy developmental reasons, we mitigate the impact of all the feelings by building boundaries. 

In the context of work, politics, education, and relationships, empathy is having its golden moment. Praised as a way to improve employee happiness, international relations, interpersonal conflict and learning disorders, empathy has a lot to live up to. 

Since empathy is getting so much attention, I think it is worth being crystal clear on the shorthand terms for describing the ways we experience feeling with others. (These definitions are a compilation of research in empathy, etymology and communication).


In its essence, without laying out the nuances and qualities of empathic communication, Empathy is embedding your emotional being in someone else’s situation.

“Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes”.

When you observe someone experiencing an emotion, and you feel that emotion well up in yourself, this is empathy. You have a visceral sense of what it feels like even though you are not experiencing the same situation. “I feel you”.


Sympathy (more recently cast aside as unhelpful) is often poorly defined as pity & sorrow, which each hold their own as unique feelings.

Instead, sympathy is to be with someone else while they emote, despite not feeling it in tandem.

We do this in the context of caring and desiring them to thrive. “Though I do not/cannot know what you are feeling, I will walk beside you”.

When you observe someone experiencing an emotion but you do not experience that emotion rise up within you, you can still sit with the person through their challenge - this is being sympathetic. You can hold space for the feeling and enable their resilience, without feeling it yourself. 

Both sympathy and empathy can support someone through distress. When we have the capacity to recognize and validate someone else’s emotions, we are better able to hear them and be supportive of them.


What doesn’t help us is when Empathy becomes Emotional Contagion -

where the line between the the original feeling and the empathic feeling becomes blurred. The observer perceives that and acts as if both people are experiencing the same thing. This situation often renders both individuals needing support. Small children (and some adults) experience high permeability of emotional states. One person’s distress becomes another person’s distress because healthy boundaries were not developed/established.


To build boundaries is not to build walls or to shut down emotional responses. To build boundaries is to say “I respect your experience as yours; This is how much time I have, how much energy I have, how much perspective I have, and I will give to that extent willingly”.


To build boundaries means to know yourself well. 


Another reason to be conscious of these boundaries is the relationship between stress & empathic response. In a nutshell, stress both increases and decreases empathy, and empathy both increases and decreases stress. Chickens and Eggs everywhere.


Stress is ubiquitous and can mean anything from anxiety to surprise, danger or exhaustion. Statistically, 1 in 4 working Canadians report being stressed, but exactly what the stressors are and how they show up emotionally vary from person to person. It is no wonder that stress and empathy are mired in a never-ending loop. 


When we experience personal distress, we tend to decrease our empathic response as a protective mechanism - when the stress feels isolated, we become more self-oriented. We may be more sensitive to cognitively noticing someone else in distress, but less capable of understanding their experience.


When we experience a social or contextual distress we tend to increase empathic response - when we are “all in the same boat”, we become more oriented to the greater good. We may be able to “get it” when someone is in distress, but less capable of taking space away from that emotion.


Striking a balance between thinking and feeling is useful in our Empathic Response. Too much or too little of either and our actions can be misguided.


A useful empathic response is a set of actions: 

  • Awareness without assumptions
  • Curious without demanding
  • Interested without interfering
  • Compassion without condescension
  • Valuing experience without analyzing or judging

Why we need to be cautious about Empathy

When our empathic response is out of balance it does us well to remember this:

Empathy can be misguided. We are wired to be empathic, but need more information to get a better sense of another person’s plight.  It is only through our own eyes (perspectives, realities, history, experiences, biases) that we imagine the other person’s situation. Our empathy tends to be specific - toward people we care deeply about or are similar to, for experiences we identify with and to emotions we are familiar with. Through those eyes and those preferences, our statements/actions can be be misguided. 


Empathy requires energy. Empathic responses require almost all regions of the brain to work together. Like any mental task, the brain uses nutrient resources to meet demand. Compassion fatigue can occur in situations of high empathic demand, weak boundaries, and low nutrient resources. We need to stop before the tank is empty, or replenish and refuel. 


Empathy is a limited resource. Limited resources can drain; sometimes we use it all day long, and have little left for loved ones at the end of the day - or vice versa. If you recall that no resource is limitless without care and conservation, you might be more judicious of how and when you support others.


How to make friends with Empathy: 

1. Body Break - When you feel yourself picking up on another person’s emotion, notice your body. There is a section of your brain oriented to do just this - what sensations do I feel and where are they? What are they telling me? 


Take a breath, and localize the emotion. Chest? Head? Fingers? Gut? It’s somewhere - that’s part of how we pick up on another’s feelings - through our nervous system. If you can place it you can also release it. Stretch it, breathe it, squeeze it, visualize throwing it away.

Do something so you are not at the whim of the emotion within you. 


Boundaries - Check in with yourself daily: How much energy do you have? How have you eaten? How have you slept? How are your personal stressors being managed? How many people are relying on your support today?

Know your limit. Stay within it. 


Be kinder to yourself - A vital piece of experiencing sustainable empathy is developing a positive self-image. If we can be kind to ourselves and our own emotional states, we have more room for another person’s emotion. If we feel poorly about ourselves, feeling another person’s emotion can feel invasive and depleting. When you feel your emotional tank for others starting to wane, take a moment to let yourself refuel, reflect and remember what you love about yourself.

Ask yourself: What could I do to be kinder to myself today?


Empathy is a tool. Like any tool, we need to know how to use it safely to protect ourselves and others. Used wisely and with practice we have an opportunity to create a beautiful outcome. Practice with your body, boundaries, and being kind to yourself - your empathic response will serve you well.