Can you empathise too much?
For the sake of those who are time and attention poor I’ll jump to the answer to this question.
Yes. Yes you can.
Empathy has become a by-word for feeling someone else’s pain so intensely it automatically means you are a good and righteous person and people are miraculously improved by your very presence. It’s very public, very ‘social media’ and teamed with a ’tilted to one side’ head position and a slightly unhinged sing song voice tone it really is something to crow about. But that’s “empathy” (which makes me come out in acts of imagined violence) and not Empathy.
For some of us Empathy means not only casually knowing a person who is suffering and taking them out for a latte, but living with that person 24/7, through thick and thin and shit and stinky shit. Empathy, the real deal, is a much tougher call altogether. It can run dry and require replenishment with sunlight, happiness, good books and simple carbohydrates. (And when we run dry, we risk appearing ‘cold’ and ‘uncaring’ to the latte-drinking, empathy part-timers.)
Empathy, as Dr Brene Brown explains is about taking the perspective of another and rather like climbing into a dark cave with a person, not merely peering down at them from above and shouting down nonsense.
I like that analogy. Except, there are limits.
If one stays down in that cave perspective-taking for too long it can become more a feat of endurance than a virtuous trip down Cheddar Caves. You start to forget there is any kind of life outside the cave, you develop rickets, poor eye-sight and trench foot. You might even start to own the perspective, like it’s yours. One day you may wake up on that cave floor, after a damp and disturbed night’s sleep and realise you are both trapped down there, weighed down by misery (and the rope ladder is rotting away).
I expect Brene would say this herself (in my head she drops round to my house for wine Friday from time to time and we chat and connect on a really deep level): the cave has to be reserved for short trips only and not gap years or longer stays. There are times when a trip down Empathy Caves is not even possible and not even helpful. Sometimes chucking down a head torch and a Bounty and saying ‘it’s sunny up here, why not come and join me when you’re ready’ (in a non-sing song voice) is the best we can do.