The trouble with empathy

Empathy.  The common assumption is the more we have, the better a person we are.  As with so many things in life, an “element of truth” is a very different thing than ‘the whole truth”.  Being an Integrative Therapist I too often get to see the painful results of this unexamined belief.  There’s a common theme I see in clients from care giving roles; including those caring for high needs family members, therapists, social workers and counselors. They’ve never been taught the difference between empathy and compassion.

Empathy is “entering” the person’s pain with them. Compassion is caring about the person and their pain.  The outcomes of these two perspectives are drastically different when it comes to caregiver stress, burnout and long-term effectiveness.  Someone once said “it’s hard to be objective if you’re up to your ass in alligators”.  When we allow ourselves to get sucked into the emotional pool with dependants or clients, we’re no longer seeing them through clear eyes.  We become far less capable caregivers or practitioners and set ourselves up for burnout.  A touch of empathy helps inform compassion.  Too much empathy becomes toxic to ourselves while degrading our ability to function effectively in our roles.

Too much empathy makes the non-swimmer jump in to save the drowning person.  They forget they can’t swim and both are lost.  Compassion leads them without panic or tunnel vision, to look quickly for safe effective ways to help.

Intellectually understanding these critical differences may not change the underlying programming in the subconscious.  We can intellectualize all we want, but the subconscious has tremendous influence.  It will repeatedly take us back to our default assumptions; particularly when stressed. For most of us, these assumptions were laid down from very early ages.   Long before we had the ability to question what we took in as truths about how we should be and function in the world.

This is where EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) and related modalities shine. Over 400 published studies including brain imaging studies have shown the power of these tools. By using these techniques, we allow the conscious and subconscious minds to safely and effectively collaborate in bringing subconscious programming into the light of day, one piece at a time. Re-examining in the here and now, the whole truth, then reconsolidating these new perceptions and understandings.

A lovely social worker I know has requested a copy of this article, saying ” I need to send this to every teacher, social worker and therapist I know. None of us were ever taught this!!”

Yours in good emotional health

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