Have you ever taken on someone’s pain as if it were your own? How about feeling the same way someone else is feeling? Only one of those is healthy empathy.
The primary difference between healthy and unhealthy empathy depends on how much self-awareness you have.
While listening to someone, the more you lose touch with your opinions, desires, and needs, the more likely you have an undeveloped sense of self. Some people might object by pointing out that good, empathetic listening means the listener forgets about their perspective. That is true. But it must remain a choice to de-emphasis one’s desires in favor of another’s. The unhealthy alternative is to default to what another wants because you have no idea what you want, or worse, you avoid exploring what you want.
The choice to focus on another must be positive. If you focus on another but harbor resentment or build up irritation, your empathy probably isn’t healthy. If you feel empty inside and have never really taken the time to understand your needs, your empathy probably isn’t healthy.
If you focus on another, feel pain, and think it is their pain, you might be deceiving yourself. Without a developed sense of your identity, it’s easy to become confused about whose pain you are feeling. In reality, any pain you feel is your own.
Identity Guides You To Healthy Empathy
Whenever you are relating to another, keep one foot planted firmly in who you are and the other reaching out to the person who needs help. It can be difficult to do this perfectly, so you might temporarily (for a few minutes) lose touch with your identity. When you become confused by taking on other’s pain as if it were yours, ask yourself questions like:
- Who am I?
- How do I feel about what the other person is going through?
- What part of my life reminds me of the other person’s pain? Often, you can be focused on another person’s pain, but are really feeling pain from your own life.
- How have the difficult life situations I’ve been through taught me to surrender (or perhaps “forget”) who I am when I’m around other people?
- What are my limits when it comes to experiencing someone else’s raw pain?
If you lose yourself while focusing on someone else, then you are already past your limit. When you reach your limit, you should excuse yourself from the conversation until you regain your strength (your sense of self).
When you take on another’s pain, it probably means you are needing self-care or someone to care for you. If you continue to help another person without a sense of who you are, you are leaving yourself in a state of self-abuse, and you won’t be much help to someone like that. It doesn’t work to abandon yourself in order to help someone else.
Ownership and Responsibility Guide You To Healthy Empathy
Women are usually better at empathizing with others, but healthy is healthy. Everyone needs to be fully willing to feel and respond to their own pain.
Consider a wife who is listening to her husband. No matter how much she cares and wants to help him with his pain, she can’t work through his pain for him. It’s his pain. Only he can do something about it. She can help by listening, but his pain is still his responsibility. In this sense, the pain only multiplies. If her husband chooses to deny or disown some of his pain, his wife can’t make the situation better by taking on more pain. The increased pain she might feel doesn’t directly reduce her husband’s pain.
Self-Care Guides You To Healthy Empathy
If after you’ve been listening to someone, you notice that you have lingering pain, realize it’s your pain, not the other’s pain. You have some issues to work through, so it’s time to focus exclusively on yourself. If you lose touch with yourself while trying to be empathetic, you should be able to get back to yourself in minutes, not days or weeks.
To help you connect with yourself, you might try journaling your feelings and answering questions like the ones listed earlier and these:
- What do I need to help the pain in my life?
- Who do I have to listen to me?
Healthy empathy is knowing what it feels like to walk in someone’s shoes and communicating it to them without judging them. Unhealthy empathy would be wearing someone else’s shoes and thinking that they are your shoes.
Read more about healthy communication.
Image by Blanka Šejdová from Pixabay
Dawn Blevins says
Thank so much for this. I have a tendency to relate to what other people are going through and sometimes personalize that. It is imperative to NOT become drawn into the other persons pain or trouble to the extent of losing your own progress. That is what I am leaning in God so much for because there truly are many hurting people. I can’t help them by taking on their pain but I can help by listening and being there if they need help. I am doing the best I can to set healthy boundaries.
LInda Buttrey says
So very good, Matt. Thank you.