Books with provocative titles such as The Dark Sides of Empathy and Against Empathy demand that we ask ourselves if empathy is good and worth our time.1 I am up for the discussion, as I believe deeper analysis of empathy can only help us to better understand it. But I do worry that disparaging empathy is clouded by misrepresentations of what empathy is and lets people claim that because there is a dark side to empathy, we do not need to attend to the feelings of others.
Empathy is a complex skill
Fully engaging in empathy can lead to positive human interactions, and when developed on a larger scale through social empathy can contribute to better relations between groups and deeper cultural understanding. But empathy is very complex.
When engaging in the full array of empathy, we need to: share physical and emotional feelings while knowing that those feelings belong to the other person (affective response and self-other awareness); imagine what the experience of the other person is without imposing our own interpretations (perspective-taking); not become overwhelmed while experiencing those feelings (emotion regulation); take in the context of other people’s lives including their group membership histories (contextual understanding); and do all this in a matter of minutes or maybe even seconds.
That is an incredible task. It takes time and practice to learn how to do this. In fact, fully engaging in empathy is a life-long process because we are constantly faced with new situations and new people to understand all the time.
Empathy alone is not good or bad
Empathy has no light or dark sides. It is a skill that, when engaged in full, gives us deeper understanding of others. If we learn to read other people and use that to manipulate them, we are not being empathic. We are not imagining ourselves in their situation and how we would want to be treated if we were them. We are simply reading others to figure out their weaknesses and then take advantage of those weaknesses. Bullies can read and interpret the feelings of others, but they do not share those feelings.
They lack the empathic ability to feel what others are feeling. To call that a dark side of empathy is wrong. Bullying is dark behavior, not empathy. So too when we vicariously live through others and take their feelings and experiences as our own, we are not being empathic. Such vicarious living lacks mastering the separation of the self and the other, a key component of empathy.
Also, when we take in the emotions of others to the point of overwhelming ourselves, that too is not empathy, because we lack the key component of emotion regulation. Emotion regulation helps us to experience the feelings of others while understanding that these emotions belong to the other person. We can develop safe emotional distance while still caring about others.
These actions – reading others, living vicariously, and emotion sharing – use some of the skills of empathy, and in the right situation might lead us to empathy. But using bits and pieces of the skills behind empathy is not the same as engaging in empathy, and sometimes those bits and pieces can lead to dark behaviors.