Unwitting Failures of the Empath
How being kind can be bad for you, and why you should be kind anyway.
The Ice Cream that Fell
How do you understand empathy?
Usually, people describe it as the ability to put oneself in the shoes of another.
Empathy is that smudge of grief you felt when a poor boy’s ice cream fell to the ground. As well as that spark of joy in his eyes, and in yours, when you see his brother bought him a new scoop.
It’s not your ice cream. You don’t get to eat it anyway, so why do you feel what he’s feeling? Blame (or thank) the mirror neurons in your brain. They prompt you to reflect the emotional state of others, thus leaving you open to feel pain and pleasure that is not yours.
It’s a weird phenomenon, if you think of it. However, it’s real, and it’s normal. We can even say that it constitutes a huge part in what makes a human, human.
Empathy = Kindness?
In a 2012 TED Talk, Simon Baron-Cohen pointed out that the commonly known concept of good and evil is actually unhelpful and unscientific. He proposed that, instead, we can use the concept of empathy as a framework for better elaboration.
There are two major categories of empathy: cognitive and affective. To illustrate the difference, imagine these two different individuals: a person with autism and a psychopath.
The first individual has an intact affective empathy, which signifies the ability to feel the emotions of others. However, because of neurological reasons, he or she is struggling with the cognitive counterpart. This entails a challenge in understanding others’ thoughts and intentions, resulting in the difficulty to act appropriately in certain social contexts.
On the contrary, the second individual is lacking in affective empathy. He or she can inflict pain on others without the slightest bit of remorse. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that a psychopath can’t understand what others feel. In fact, a psychopath is usually quite adept in deception and manipulation, indicating a strong cognitive empathy.
Without the ability to understand others’ emotions, it becomes way easier to cause them suffering. Thus, evil — or cruelty, as Baron-Cohen puts it — can be aptly defined as the deficiency of affective empathy.
Which means, the opposite is also true.
The more affective empathy someone has, the kinder he or she is.
Two Sides of The Same Coin
“It is both a blessing
And a curse
To feel everything
So very deeply.”
— David Jones
To be kind — truly, inherently kind — has its light and its shadow.
As we have established before, a kind person is one that has higher-than-average affective empathy, enabling them to comprehend the emotions of others at an exceptional standard.
There are some that experience this phenomenon deeper than most. Sometimes too deep. These people feel what others feel as if it were their own. The euphoria, the anger, the sorrow, the agony — they felt it all even though it doesn’t belong to themselves.
These people are referred to as empaths.
(I’m having difficulty in finding a literature that can validate this “empath” concept. There’s a possibility that it’s just pseudoscience, but it’s an intriguing concept nonetheless.)
Can you imagine being an emotional sponge? Absorbing everything from everyone around you. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
Being able to understand others (without them having to say a word), you can’t help but to care, to be concerned— to emphatize.
Coming to the aid of others is nice. It feels nice, so you continue to do it. Everything is all well and good, until you realize that — despite this superpower — you’re only human. You can’t save everyone.
Then you start to wonder, who’s gonna save you?
Some may argue that nowadays (aside from the pre-existing psychopaths), people are becoming less and less empathetic.
Technology is the most common scapegoat. We often blame smartphones and social media for this shortcoming. “The habit of communicating through screens has atrophied our capacity to see eye to eye,” as they say.
For empaths, this loss of empathy may be happening for a different reason. I believe, this following sentence will resonate with many of those who identify as an empath: Empathy can be overwhelming.
Your kindness, that’s your fatal flaw.
With their deep-rooted kindness, empaths unwittingly placed a heavy burden on their shoulders. They take on responsibility for others’ well-being, in hopes of making the world a better place. Despite its noble intention, this is a recipe for disaster. It’s not reasonable for one man to save the entire mankind.
What if, rather than disappearing from the world, our empathy is just being suppressed? We are afraid of its irrepressible prospect, so we mute our own inner-voice whenever it surfaces. It’s a terrifying thought, to extend a helping hand then realizing that your reach is not far enough. It would be better to just not care from the start, wouldn’t it?
Well, perhaps it’s true. Perhaps our collective empathy has been diminished to the point of near-exhaustion — but it’s still there. You feel it in you. You can’t get rid of it, even if you tried.
Your kindness, that’s your fatal flaw.
And it just might be your greatest strength. Empathy plays a huge part in what makes a human, human.
Yes, it can be overwhelming. Terrifying, even. To the point where you just want to get rid of it. Making you wonder, repeatedly, if it would be better to just have no emotion whatsoever. There are times where it just drives you out of your mind — but it also keeps you human.
Have faith, kindness is not a losing game.
Odin, 15th of Apru
The topic of this writing, Empathy, is suggested by Patricia Romasi.