Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 25 seconds

Too much empathy will kill you

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 25 seconds

Empathy is something I think about a lot. I wonder why it is so strong in some people and yet almost totally absent in others.

This week, I have listened to friends talk to me about difficult situations they find themselves in, and I struggled to remain calm in order to support them, and yet I felt so much empathy, it felt as though it was happening to me, and it was devastating, because I felt it happening to me, and my emotional reaction was one as if it were happening to me. This is possibly because those two friends are going through things I could imagine myself going through and feeling the same way they do about them, given our circumstances. But empathy is not about feeling how I would feel, it should be about feeling how they do feel. In these cases, because we are close, and have similar circumstances, I imagine that I know how they feel, but the more distant the person and their circumstances, the more difficult it would be to empathize, right?

Is empathy something that can be developed in adulthood even if it had not been fostered since childhood? Once you have it, can you control it, or does it get out of hand to an extent that can paralyze you as you feel another’s pain and suffering?

I have written previously about bell hooks’ book “Will to Change” in which she invites women to empathize with men who have been indoctrinated into patriarchy to the point of making them unable to love us (women) in ways that would make us and them happier.

The men in my life and in my society are quite unlike the ones bell hooks describes. They are capable of feeling and expressing tenderness. They do not fear expressing love, they are not aggressive in the most obvious sense. But they have other issues related to patriarchy that bell hooks talks about.

Their major problem, in my view, is their lack of empathy towards women, and I think it is the root of all the problems. I could be wrong, of course, but I often think that if men knew the impact of their actions on women, or understood what women were going through, how they felt, they would behave differently.

But here’s the thing: the distance between men and women, what they do, how they live, can be so large that it makes empathy difficult. Or the indoctrination into a particular (patriarchal or other) way of seeing the world can blind them.

I am not talking about extreme things like rape: I can’t even begin to imagine how a man can do something like that if they could put themselves in the victim’s shoes. But I am talking about daily microtransgressions and aggressions that men do “to” women and expect women to… What? Accept them? Welcome them? Tolerate them?

I will stop here…

4 thoughts on “Too much empathy will kill you

  1. Great post, Maha–as always. I think empathy skills are mostly developed through enculturation. Wikipedia defines enculturation as “the process by which people learn the requirements of their surrounding culture and acquire values and behaviours appropriate or necessary in that culture.” So, for example, it may be possible for someone to ignore one’s feelings because he/she might think that it is the right/conventional thing to do. I’m thinking about women’s rights in Turkey as I’m writing this. Can’t men put themselves into women’s shoes? Of course they can, but why should they do that when the society in which they live in encourages the exact opposite?

    1. Good point, Suzan! So… Following that line of reasoning, “teaching” empathy to one’s own child or students will face resistance from the wider sociocultural context which (in this part of the world at least, but probably elsewhere) discourages it (at least in terms of gender issues)

  2. I guess so, although I’m over generalizing society in my first comment. Enculturation can happen on many levels (family, schools, military, etc.), but I think at a young age families and peers play a significant role in shaping our values and behaviors. So, in the context of women’s rights, education should start at a young age by modeling mutual care and support in the family (so I guess it’s more like a way of being than modeling). But this is not to say empathy can’t be developed in adulthood, one example would be the success of victim awareness and empathy programs:

  3. Hi Maha, just back from the hospital. Agree with Suzan that empathy can be taught. We can also teach that inequality is normal and certain people have lesser rights. Poor treatment of other is a form of selfishness, immaturity and fear

    I think without choice though empathy is just weak kindness or politeness. The first 4 days of my hospital recovery were with a single room-mate who whined, complained, ordered the nurses around and showed no awareness of others. Sure there were lots of reasons to excuse his behavior but in my mind he decided to be a jerk and earned no kindness from me. I spent a whole night freezing in the fluids leaking from my IV and drains, and without pain medications because this guy never let the nurses to my bed to help me. My roommate was completely locked in his own selfishness and I had to break his control over the resources I needed to survive.

    bell hooks is an interesting thinker, but wonder if the power of compassion isn’t just a nice sounding belief system? Seems to me allowing bad behavior from others as a way to teach good behavior is ridiculous.

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