Does Empathy Have A Dark Side?
April 12, 201911:43 AM ET.JONATHAN LAMBERT.
author Fritz Breithaupt. “Sometimes we commit atrocities not out of a failure of empathy but rather as a direct consequence of successful, even overly successful, empathy,” he writes in his forthcoming book The Dark Sides of Empathy.
Breithaupt, who directs the Experimental Humanities Lab at Indiana University, argues that empathy is a morally ambiguous capacity, one that can lead us astray if we don’t understand its many sides.
People assume that empathy is good because it is good for the recipient of empathy — I’m actually skeptical about this.
How is empathy good for the empathizer?
Vampiristic empathy is a form of empathy where people want to manipulate the people they empathize with so that they can, through them, experience the world in such a way that they really enjoy it.
An extreme case of this is helicopter parenting. Helicopter parents are constantly trying to steer their kids in the directions they think are the right directions. Of course they want the best for their children.
In a sense, extreme helicopter parents are robbing their kids of a selfhood so that they can basically project their own self into these kids.
empathy can actually make us more polarized instead of bringing us together.
Humans are very quick to take sides. And when you take one side, you take the perspective of that side. You can see the painful parts of that perspective and empathize with them, and that empathy can fuel seeing the other side as darker and darker or more dubious.
Are there other downsides to empathy?
[Empathizers] may overextend themselves. If you are a medical doctor who sees a lot of suffering and pain every day, it can very quickly become too much. Something like a third of medical doctors suffer from “empathy burnout” that is so severe that it affects their functioning as doctors and their personal life. They become the victim of feeling empathy.
My note: and some therapists can suffer of “hollow” empathy – an empathy not as a human feeling but as a tool to extend their ability/control in the room.
Also, “MInnesota Nice” can acquire a rather different meaning seen through the lens of this research
My core argument here is that in many cases of altruistic help or humanitarian aid, people actually don’t really empathize as much with the person in need. They identify more with the helper, the hero, the person who intervenes even if it’s an imaginary helper.
If you want recognition and if that doesn’t come, it can turn into resentment.
we can learn to use empathy in a somewhat controlled way. We can learn when to block it, when to not allow empathy to be manipulated and when to fully turn it on.
Yes, we are born with empathy, but it needs constant practice [to know] when to use it and when not to use it. So the dark sides are so important to know because they teach us that in some cases you shouldn’t empathize.
more on empathy in this IMS blog