As therapists, we are taught the vital importance of empathy very early on, because feeling that your therapist is empathic is one of the ‘common factors’ which helps to create positive change, whatever type of therapy is being practiced.
Taking a scroll on social media, it doesn’t exactly seem like we’re being overrun by an empathy epidemic (and I often say that the world would be a better place if more people were more empathic).
So, why am I here writing this blog post and suggesting that there may be a problem?
Because, being very good at empathy but not being very good at boundaries, is a recipe for trouble.
And some people’s early childhood experiences combined with continuing power dynamics around emotional labour, and who is expected to give and receive empathy, sets us up to have strengths and weakness in exactly these areas.
What might this dynamic look like in practice? One example is if our empathy and understanding of the difficulties someone is going through, and why they may be behaving in ways that are hurtful, become a barrier to us objecting to their behaviour or distancing ourselves from it. So ‘my mum is having a really difficult time at the moment with x, y and z, and she had a really messed up childhood, so when she constantly criticises me I shouldn’t say anything, as that’ll make her feel worse, and she’s having a bad enough time already’.
So, does empathy have a downside? Well, in this example it’s not exactly empathy in itself that’s the problem but what we do with it that counts. As an isolated occurrence, cutting someone slack because of their circumstances isn’t inevitably a bad thing, but when ‘being empathic’ morphs into a pattern where others’ needs, feelings and experiences completely dominate your own, it quickly becomes toxic (or, to answer the original question ‘does empathy have a downside? Yes, when it’s actually codependency’).
The good news is that boundaries and assertiveness are skills which can be developed over time. The slightly less good news is that, for some of us, to be able to learn these skills we sometimes need to process some very difficult stuff around being taught to abandon our own needs, or being punished for trying to say no or set limits. This is whilst also navigating the realities of living in a world where some people are expected to be more accommodating to others and are socially and materially disadvantaged if they are not. This can all be difficult to do alone, and yes, it’s something therapy can really help with.
In the meantime some resources and further reading:
Codependency recovery: https://codependencyrecovery.org/
Pete Walker on codependency and the fawn response: https://www.pete-walker.com/codependencyFawnResponse.htm
Kristin Neff Fierce Self-compassion: https://self-compassion.org/fierce-self-compassion/