Whenever people talk about empathy, thoughts of compassion, affection, and selflessness come to mind. Rarely do we associate empathic traits with negativity. But, is it possible that there is a dark side of empathy?
Studies by Fritz Breithaupt, a Professor at the John Hopkins’ Affiliated Faculty of Cognitive Science, show that indeed this negative side exists. In his book, The Dark Sides of Empathy, the professor notes that even empathic persons commit atrocities. It may not be out of ill intentions. Instead, it is the culmination of the person’s success in leading an empathic life. Huh?
Let’s explore this concept further:
The Neuroscience of Empathy
Neuroscientists believe that egocentric tendencies are innate in all human beings. At first, they attributed this conclusion to a tiny spot on the brain, the right supramarginal gyrus, where they believed empathy emanates. But when the spot malfunctions, the individual may not show compassion when making decisions that concern others. Still, this spot can sense the lack of empathy in the individual. In turn, it initiates processes to autocorrect the imbalance.
A study by Max Planck Institute for Human and Cognitive Brain Sciences researchers published on October 9th, 2013 in the Journal of Neuroscience suggested that if we could demystify how this spot for empathy functions, then it could explain what empathy is all about. Further, defining the source of empathy may make it possible to teach compassion.
Later on, the researchers realized that it is impossible to pinpoint empathy to a particular spot on the brain. As per imaging studies, empathy is everywhere. When we make decisions that affect our feelings and the feelings of those near us, we engage the entire brain. This new finding suggests that empathy will dictate how we think or reason with others. Definitely, we can never neglect empathy even for a second.
Then, what can we conclude about science and empathy? For starters, our brains wire us to be empathic beings. Still, we must take deliberate steps to grow this tendency throughout our lives. Indeed, this is where the challenge lies. It is here that the start of a dark side of empathy emerges.
So What Are The Dark Sides of Empathy?
First things first, empathy is a valuable attribute that enriches our lives more than it could ever pose harm to us. That’s why the overall notion about it is positive. Notwithstanding, is it possible that the empathizer gets some satisfaction or benefit from expressing empathy? Does caring for others or carrying other people’s worries give them a sense of belonging? If so, is the empathizer being selfish?
How the Empathizer Benefits from Helping Others
It is hard to imagine a world where empathy is non-existent. Each person will mind their own business, ignoring the plight of those near them. But, some argue about a dark side of empathy. They insist that when empaths help those around them, they have a chance to participate in their lives.
It is a selfish motive that allows the empath to lead more than one life. In turn, they get joy and fulfillment when the other person succeeds. It is a satisfaction that justifies any suffering they may endure from taking up another person’s negative emotions. In this argument, empathy is for the empaths.
Going back to Professor Fritz Breithaupt’s book, the professor mentions the existence of vampiristic empathy. Here, the empath has a deliberate intention to get enjoyment from participating in other people’s lives. The empath will use manipulation to steer the relationship to achieve their selfish goal. Typical signs of this toxic relationship include the empath expressing pride in their heroics instead of dwelling on compassion for others.
Polarizing Power of Empathy
We always anticipate empathy to resolve conflicts and bring people together, right? But, what if you are empathizing with a family member who is fighting with a sibling or a relative? Your actions may polarize the family, forcing them to take sides. The scenario is repeated when a civil war breaks out, and another nation intervenes to bring truce. The mere act of empathizing with one side indicates to the other fighting person that you are against them. Then, will empathy be helpful to any of these confliction persons?
Finally, serving others, absorbing their suffering, fears, and anxieties can cause an empathy burnout. At this point, the empath must find ways to cleanse the negative energy. But, what if the empath ignores the warning signs of empathy burnout? It is at this point that that dark side of empathy emerges again.
Empaths who do not practice self-care risk harming those they intend to help. Think of a medical practitioner who is emotionally drained from working tirelessly to save lives in an emergency room. Unless the doctor takes a break to meditate, heal, and address the clinical depression, anxiety, and guilt of losing a patient, they may endanger the lives they seek to save.
Now, should the possibility of a dark side of empathy make us disregard this personality trait altogether? Not at all. Since neuroscientists have shown us that empathy is inbuilt, we can harness it throughout our lives. Then, let us aim at expressing healthy empathy.
When you sense an empathy burnout, put your interests first. Only then can you restore your health and serve others. Study the surroundings and decide if you should take leave. Match the negativity coming your way with lots of positivity. And, follow your instincts. Here are additional tips for surviving empathy burnout: –
- Opt for jobs that are suitable for your super-sensitive personality;
- Set clear boundaries on how you want to share your life with those in need;
- Meditate using daily positive affirmations for self-confidence;
- Try crystal healing for anxiety and depression;
- Practice clean eating.
We all have varying levels of empathy. And, the dark side of empathy is real. However, we can use this natural trait to be compassionate to others without having selfish intentions. Still, it takes lots of discipline and practice to keep off from the dark side of empathy. It is about expressing empathy in a controlled manner.