Day 435: About Empathy

Lately, I’ve been wondering if there’s harm in being too empathetic.

The straightforward answer here is probably yes. My admittedly shallow understanding of personality disorders is that while some people experience a debilitating lack of empathy, others can have such emotional hypersensitivity that they’re overwhelmed to the point of inaction.

So – as a defining characteristic of disorders (or things we consider socially unacceptable), excessive absence or presence of empathy seems real, and harmful.

But even if we (the cultural we… you know, “We”) think about empathy within a normal or accepted range, we still run into trouble with it. In general, we consider empathy an altruistic and necessary attribute – its definition is intimately tied to kindness, compassion, patience and a host of other virtuous qualities. But when we overuse it, do we cause more damage than good?

Recently, a writer for wrote a story about her experience in a yoga class, and it revolved wholly around her effort to embody another person’s experience. While I believe her article was written from a place of compassion, it comes across as presumptuous and pretentious. As a slim white woman, the writer imagines that the experience of a new “heavyset” black student is negative and alienating – and she becomes obsessively upset with the thought.

The Internet reaction to this article was fairly negative and critical – in some cases, productively so, but in others, just plain mean. (I’m purposefully not linking to it, because the initial content and resulting discussion is easily found elsewhere. The point of this post is not to stir that pot, although I think it’s a terribly interesting stew.)

My own reaction to the story was twofold. For one thing, yoga is a personal experience. It’s designed to help individual people quiet their own minds and bodies, which means not paying attention to another person’s private journey. True yoga practice doesn’t happen when you’re wrapped up imagining someone else’s experience.

Secondly, the article reads as empathetic to a fault. In trying so hard to put herself in another woman’s shoes – and then publicly posting about it – the writer made her own point of view more important than the other woman’s actual perspective. Somehow, empathy turned into self-involvement.

It’s a conundrum.

To offer one more example, I had a conversation with a friend the other day about gay marriage rights. From our shared everyone-should-be-able-to-get-married point of view, we determined that those on the other side of the issue suffer from an inability to remove empathy from the equation. It seems reasonable to assume that a straight conservative male may not be able to empathize with a gay male. Thinking about two men having sex is probably more than uncomfortable (See how I just tried to appropriately empathize there? Can o’ worms, baby.).

So the question then becomes, if we can’t empathize with another person’s actions, does it mean what they’re doing is wrong?

I obviously don’t think so, which means that maybe we’re placing too much emphasis – and moral value – on empathy. We should be capable of being compassionate and fair without being empathetic.

To close the longest blog post I think I’ve ever written, this topic confuses me in a really delightful way. If you’re also stimulated and muddled by our emotional capacity to understand other people, I’m very interested in hearing your thoughts. Please feel free to share.