Expert Q&A: Managing Empathy and Love
Q: Do I empathize too much?
A: Most of us have been taught to feel sorry for people who are less fortunate than we are and to forgive people when they make mistakes. Charity and civilization rely on empathy. Yet, as many of my clients have shown me, there is such a thing as too much empathy. Read these brief scenarios.
1. Emily was a school counselor, and one of her tenth-grade students was skipping school and bickering with teachers. When she met with the teenager and his father, Emily developed instant rapport with the boy's father, a widower, who said he was struggling with single parenthood. Within weeks, Emily and the boy's father began an intimate relationship. And months later, Emily took out a restraining order against the father for violence. It seems that he was taking out his anger on his son-and then Emily. She said she fell so hard for the teenager's father that she "tossed her professional part of her brain out the window." Usually, she did a thorough family assessment, but the father seemed so sweet, so concerned, so sexy. He made her feel special.
2. Stephanie was one of the most respected pediatric nurses in a major teaching hospital. She was the calm, go-to person whenever the situation became tense. She continued this role when it came to her choice of men. "I'm a magnet for losers," Stephanie said. "If you need bail money or a loan, I'm your girl," she said. It took years for Stephanie to believe that she could be loved without having to rescue someone.
3. Milena felt sorry for her stepson. He was overweight and had a mother with serious mental illness. When she married Mario, she believed she could really make a difference in her stepson's life. Milena, Mario and Mario's son, whom they called Jr., had a peaceful life for a couple of years, but when Jr. turned fifteen, problems surfaced. When Mario became ill, Jr. became nasty. "Jr. was snide, critical, greedy and uncaring," Milena said. "It's my fault. I never spoke up and corrected him when he was younger. I wanted him to feel loved."
It's likely that your situation is different from these stories, but did you spot what all these scenarios have in common? If you guessed something like allowing feeling sorry for someone to squash your judgment, you are on the right track.
How do you know if too much empathy is getting the better of you? Read this list and see if anything sounds like you.
1. You almost always bite your tongue when even big issues arise.
2. You feel so sorry for someone that you lower your expectations of that person.
3. You like being the "nice and good one."
4. You like being someone who fixes problems and people.
5. You like being indispensable.
6. You feel as though you are disappearing in the relationship or family.
7. You've made mistakes in your own life, so what right do you have to reject others?
8. Your judgment of what's right or what's important is cloudy.
9. You are afraid to speak up because your partner might harm you.
10. You like feeling very important.
These items are warning signs that your care and concern for others are getting in the way of acting in the best interest of yourself and others. After all, if you don't expect respect, kindness or responsibility from others, then they often don't measure up. Like the people in the three examples, you might tend to accept unacceptable behavior for too long and too often.
Eventually, it seems as though your kindness and tolerance have backfired, and you end up feeling invisible, unappreciated or confused. I call this situation "Death by a Thousand Accommodations." The cause of this emotional train wreck is allowing your empathy to diminish your common sense and decency to yourself. Loving someone should not cost you love of yourself. Here are some tips for not falling into this trap.
1. Examine your family history. If one of your parents was an over-accommodator, then be aware that you might have adopted this behavior, too.
2. Keep a journal. If you are not sure whether your judgment is solid, keep a journal of events.
3. Do a feeling check. When an incident occurs that bothers you even a little, leave the room and take a feeling break. Review, as accurately as possible, the incident. Ask yourself: Am I feeling upset?
4. Talk to someone. Sometimes, telling the incident to another person can activate your feelings and better judgment.
5. Take a small step. Pick one small but important interaction that you would like to manage by changing your usual response. Practice saying or visualizing what you want to do. Overlook your fears and do it. Remember that you can get your point across without being snide. Expect others to fight back when you act differently. After all, they are used to your being the sensitive one who never rocks the boat. Finally, remind yourself that you are still a good and worthy person if you abandon being the "too nice one." One word of caution, however: If your partner is physically abusive, first seek counseling since rocking the boat might escalate his anger. Stay safe.
Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, Ed.D., MSS is a noted psychologist and lic.clinical social worker, specializing in relationships. For her book about women and love, she welcomes women to take her 17-20 minute online research survey at www.lovevictory.com.
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