Have you ever felt carried along by the tide of emotions? I feel that way all the time. You might characterize me as emotionally sensitive. That can be good. And that can also be tricky sometimes, when it comes to ranking high on the empathy scale.
According to Merriam Webster, my go-to source when I want to know the nuances of words (and that’s a favorite pastime for me!), empathy is defined as ‘the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else’s feelings.’
When is empathy appropriate? Inappropriate? Are ‘appropriate’ or ‘inappropriate’ the right words to use? Can we really know what people are feeling if they don’t share their feelings with us? How much are our own feelings a form of projection or transference?
Are there certain people for whom we shouldn’t feel empathy towards? Criminals? Mean people? People you don’t care for, for whatever reason? Should empathy be black or white? Should we have empathy for everyone simply because they are human? Should it be dictated by the situation?
Empathy, as I’ve read, is an extraordinarily important trait to have. I love that I’m empathetic. I think it’s one of my best traits. Question is, can you be too empathetic in certain situations?
This is an intriguing question, one that Psychology Today tackled in their June 2015 edition: “The art of empathy requires paying attention to another’s needs without sacrificing one’s own. It demands the mental dexterity to switch attunement from other to self. What turns empathy into a true high-wire act is that its beneficiaries find the attention deeply rewarding. That puts the onus on us to know when to extract ourselves from someone else’s shoes — and how.”
Relationships get dicey when the person you empathize with is also the subject of your pity. Pity, in my book, is condescending in certain situations, particularly when you feel you have some duty to rescue a person. What kind of need are you fulfilling in yourself acting as rescuer? I ask myself too, would I want someone to hang out with me out of pity, to befriend me because they feel I need help or rescuing?
I suspect this may be the basis of some of the relationships I’ve had in the past. All I know is, they don’t typically work out in the long-run. You inevitably end up resenting the person you’re trying to save or you end up feeling hostile towards the person who wants to “fix” you.
As I’ve matured, I realize that you can certainly help people who ask for it. You should help children, who are in a lot of ways defenseless. Help the homeless. Give your help to organizations that serve the underprivileged. But it’s a slippery slope when you try to foist your help on those who haven’t asked for it and don’t technically need it (read: grown, able-bodied adults).
I mostly help myself these days. That’s all I can do. I don’t rely on others to help me with things about myself I need to work on. I also try not to impose myself on others. This is hard for me as an empathetic person, but it keeps life mostly drama-free.