The Limits of Empathy

By Jason Marsh | September 1, 2005 | 0 comments

As Frans de Waal notes, it makes evolutionary sense that we more readily identify with—and feel more protective toward—people who seem like more immediate members of our family and community.

What’s more, unbounded, unconditional empathy could jeopardize a person’s mental or physical health. If we truly felt the pain of everyone we encountered, we’d likely be incapacitated by emotional grief. This seems especially true for members of “helping” professions, like teachers, police officers, and physicians. “It is tremendously satisfying to just connect and feel for and with a patient,” said Eric Larson, the director of the Center for Health Studies at the Group Health Cooperative in Seattle. “But on the downside, it’s work. And like all kinds of work, it can be done well and constructively, or it can be done to extremes.” In a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Larson argues that empathy is so important to high-quality caregiving that medical students and residents should receive long-term training in how to perform this “emotional labor.” If they’re not trained properly in how to manage their emotional workload, he says, they risk burning out. “For physicians, this could lead to cynicism and real job dissatisfaction,” he said. “People leave the field because they feel it’s just too much work.” Under certain conditions, forms of empathy could jeopardize nonprofessional relationships as well.

In a study of married couples, Texas A&M University psychologist Jeffry Simpson and his colleagues found that some spouses would feel threatened by negative thoughts and feelings their partners had about their relationship. If they were “empathically accurate” in reading those threatening thoughts, they felt less close toward their partner. Simpson said that not being attuned to those threatening thoughts and feelings could benefit a relationship, especially when they stem from a spouse’s temporary bad mood. There may be nothing a partner can do to change those feelings, and responding to them might only make things worse. But that’s not always the case, he added. “If it’s something you can change, something that’s going to reoccur, something that can be fixed—under those conditions, it’s probably best to face the harsh negativity of your partner’s thoughts,” he said. “Take the short-term blow in order to solve the problem so it doesn’t continue to occur.”

Tracker Pixel for Entry
 
 
 
About The Author

Jason Marsh is the editor in chief of Greater Good.

  

Like this article?

Here's what you can do:

Donate
 
  
 
blog comments powered by Disqus
 

Most...

  
  

Greater Good Events

Mindfulness, Connection, and Compassion
International House, UC Berkeley
October 2, 2015


Mindfulness, Connection, and Compassion

A special day-long event with Shauna Shapiro, Ph.D., and Dan Siegel, M.D.


» ALL EVENTS
 
 

Take a Greater Good Quiz!

How compassionate are you? How generous, grateful, or forgiving? Find out!

» TAKE A QUIZ
 

Watch Greater Good Videos

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Talks by inspiring speakers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dacher Keltner, and Barbara Fredrickson.

Watch
 

Greater Good Resources

 
 
» MORE STUDIES
 
 
» MORE ORGS
 

Book of the Week

Altruism in Humans By C. Daniel Batson We lose time to save the whales and we lose sleep over a heartbroken friend. With this, Baston posits the remarkable thesis that we humans have the capacity to care for others for their own sakes.

» READ MORE
 
Is she flirting with you? Take the quiz and find out.
"It is a great good and a great gift, this Greater Good. I bow to you for your efforts to bring these uplifting and illuminating expressions of humanity, grounded in good science, to the attention of us all."  
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Best-selling author and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program

thnx advertisement