The Downsides of Empathy, And What To Do About It

Posted on August 23, 2023 by Nate Regier / 0 comments
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I’ve written quite a bit about the relationship between empathy and compassion, emphasizing they are both important, but not the same thing.

What is the difference between empathy and compassion?

Recently, a friend of mine from Changing Work shared this terrific video from the BBC, about the surprising downsides to empathy. By the way, if you are passionate about changing work from the inside out with more compassion, check out this group and the fabulous community that Scott Shute and Nicholas Whitaker are leading. Search #ChangingWork on Linkedin to see some of the cool stuff going on.

The Surprising Downsides to Empathy

Here’s a summary of the main points in this seven-minute video, narrated by experts in the field.

  • Empathy is the ability to share feelings with another; pain or joy.
  • Several different brain regions are involved in empathy.
  • Most people think of empathy as a force for good, but there are downsides.
  • Empathy can lead us to favor our own in-group over other groups.
  • Concentrating empathy for in-group vs. outgroup can scale up to colonialism, genocide, terrorism, or religious persecution.
  • Empathy in many cases of big conflicts can be more the cause of the problem vs a solution.
  • Empathic distress happens when people can’t distinguish another person’s distress from their own.
  • Empathy fatigue can become incapacitating and a barrier to constructive action. Here’s an article I wrote on How to deal with empathy fatigue.
  • The solution isn’t to abandon empathy but to implement compassion.
  • Compassion actually is a protective mechanism that builds more resilience and positive energy while turning the focus on others.
  • Empathy triggers pain centers of the brain. Compassion (affiliation, caring, love) stimulates reward centers of the brain. It is intrinsically motivating.
  • Compassion can be learned, which builds resilience and helps people become more healthy.

I’m delighted to share this because it is such a succinct summary and support of a chapter in my new book, Compassionate Accountability. In the section, Barriers to Compassion, I dedicate a chapter to the misconception that compassion is all about empathy. Other chapters in this same section target misconceptions that compassion can’t be learned, or that compassion is only for selfless servant leaders.

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