Article | 1 min read

When empathy backfires

By Chelsea Larsson

Last updated December 28, 2020

Touted as the cure-all for a wide range of social challenges, empathy is having its moment in the sun. And not without reason. Empathy makes people more effective leaders and can facilitate anyone interested in becoming a more compassionate, and understanding person. Empathy also helps businesses improve the customer experience. While it’s not a magic bullet, per se, it is a powerful psychological tool that has life-changing results.

Empathy comes in a few flavors. According to researcher Dr. Paul Ekman, there are three of note: cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and empathetic concern.

  • Cognitive empathy, also known as perspective taking, happens when you try to understand what the other person is thinking
  • Emotional empathy is the intrinsic drive to respond to another human’s emotional state
  • The final type of empathy is empathic concern. This is where someone recognizes the distress of another person, and is moved to help the other person. For instance, you see that your grandmother is struggling with her iPhone so you offer to give her a few tutorials.

By seeing ourselves in the other person’s situation, we actually become less aggressive and exhibit more caregiving behaviors overall. Essentially, we become better humans.

But, even with all its benefits, sometimes empathy can backfire.

Too much of a good thing

We know that empathy in the workplace creates happier and more productive employees. And that leaders who are empathetic engender more loyalty from their employees. But there is a difference between an empathetic, compassionate boss and a boss that’s too nice. In fact, a boss who never gives criticism is almost worse than one who deals harsh verbal blows.

Managers who are too nice can fall into the trap of “Ruinous Empathy,” a term coined by Kim Scott and Russ Laraway, the founders of Candor, Inc. This type of empathy happens when leaders care deeply for the employee on a personal level, but rarely challenge the employee on how they can improve. Although this might sound like a nice relaxing work environment, it stunts the development of the employee. How can you improve without any feedback? Not only can being a too-nice boss hurt the employee, it can also hurt the boss’s image. Other employees and peers may judge an overly nice managers as being thin-skinned or inept at making tough decisions.

The same goes for personal interactions. Although empathy can often lead to noble, altruistic acts of kindness for strangers, being unfiltered in empathy can be dangerous, especially when helping someone you don’t know. It’s important to establish safety first. “It is likely that empathically-motivated and emotionally naïve ‘rescuing’ has prematurely shortened many lives in human history,” write Sara Konrath and Delphine Grynberg in their study, “The Positive (and Negative) Psychology of Empathy.” In short, taking home a stray dog is one thing, but bringing home a stray human, while noble, is quite a bit less manageable.

Confusing charity with empathy

Another way “empathy” can backfire is when it allows us to put distance (comfort, if you will) between the people we are helping and ourselves. Research from the University of Manitoba found that when people empathize with a disadvantaged community over a period of time, it can lead to a confirmation of negative stereotypes for the empathizer. For example, if your only exposure to the Tenderloin neighborhood in San Francisco is through donating money to a clean needles clinic, you might begin to think the entire neighborhood is made up largely of heroin users. This stereotype can lead to judgment, and cause you to pull away from the people in the neighborhood.

In the same research by the University of Manitoba, researchers examined charities that help communities while at the same time, take away their autonomy to be self-sufficient. For instance, a nonprofit that creates clean water wells but then does not teach local community members how to clean and repair the wells. When a well breaks, it’s up to the nonprofit to schedule and make fixes. The study argues that this is not truly empathy because it retains the power divide between the advantaged and disadvantaged communities.

Another danger is that the empathy can lead to paternalistic behavior where the advantaged person feels “better than” for helping the disadvantaged person. Acts of charity like donating money or buying someone a house might be motivated by empathy but if they aren’t coupled with a real connection to the recipient, they can begin to feel like acts of power for both parties. And that type of a savior complex power trip can actually make us less empathetic over time.

Giving too much of yourself

At the same time, being continuously empathetic, truly empathetic, creates its own unique issue for the empathizer. People who are required to empathize for long or repeated periods of time can develop something called empathy exhaustion, or compassion fatigue. It’s a natural state that results from repeated high-effort empathetic interactions. Empathy exhaustion is characterized by impatience, irritability, aggression, diminished concentration, and feelings of detachment towards the client or customer. In a sense, the person has reached their caring capacity.

But, while irritability towards customers is not ideal, the debilitating part of empathy exhaustion is actually the long term effects is has on the person outside of work. “I’ve noticed that while I experience empathy exhaustion with clients, what happens more often is that I completely lose patience and compassion for people in my personal life. Definitely an area that I’m still trying to figure out how to manage,” said Lilly Conboy a mental health associate at an intensive treatment foster care program in the Bay Area.

While it is common, empathy exhaustion is also preventable. From a self-care perspective, the empathizer can take breaks to listen to music, go on a walk, or otherwise detach themselves from the situation. From a business perspective, managers and leaders can curtail empathy exhaustion by creating supportive environments where employees feel empowered to ask for help before they hit a wall.

Choose empathy but choose it wisely

Understanding the three types of empathy, and when to use them can be helpful in preventing a bad empathy meltdown. For example, as a customer service agent dealing with an irate customer, it might be healthier to use cognitive empathy rather than emotional empathy. You can better identify why the customer is frustrated, and what they want. While at the same time, avoiding taking on their negative emotions which could leave you feeling depressed.

As we’ve seen, empathy is a powerful way to build stronger relationships with our community, colleagues, and customers. But it also has a few drawbacks. Use empathy with intention and with respect for your own psychological health. As you go out into the world and spread empathy, don’t forget to empathize with yourself too.