The Power and Weakness of Empathy

Joan Marques - Ed.D., MBA.
Burbank, California

Having the ability to understand others deeply is a great virtue, but it can lead to complexity in one's life as well.

Empathy is often portrayed as one of the outstanding skills an individual should have in order to be a good leader. And rightfully so: a leader who is capable of empathizing with his or her followers is usually seen as a transformational one because he or she knows how to make his or her subordinates feel that they matter not just as a segment in the workplace, but as a holistic being in various settings. An empathetic leader will be praised for his or her "sixth" sense, because this leader will invest every possible effort to make people feel happy in their job by placing them in positions they can handle well, and therefore, excel in.

But empathy is not just a virtue in work-related environments: an empathetic individual is usually dearly loved by many far outside the work setting. Empathetic people know how to make you feel that they care and that they are willing to do anything they can to make you happy and keep you content. And here is where the problem creeps in: They often do that at their own expense! A highly empathetic person may develop such a need to keep others happy that he or she totally ignores his or her own happiness. Why? Because he or she perceives his or her happiness as a selfish act, especially if others will be hurt on the way toward achieving it.

An example may be in place here: An empathetic person who is attached to a partner or team that desperately needs him or her, may realize that his or her happiness lies somewhere else, and may even already have identified the location, setting or person with whom happiness will be a fact, but for the mere reason that he or she knows the despair that will be caused by leaving the current partner or team, he or she discards his or her own chance of emotional comfort. Yes, empathetic people may therefore be called people pleasers. And yes, empathetic people may even be considered cowards. But is that really the case? I guess it depends on the angle you perceive it from: it is cowardice to fear the encounter with pain, but at the same time it is brave to stay where you don't really want to be.

There are many people who stay with partners, jobs, projects, or teams that they actually dread, simply because they dread the hurt they will cause by leaving even more. And again, it may not even be fear for change that is ruling here, as the empathetic person may very well be an adventurous one: it may just be plain old fear for causing pain. Arrogant? Maybe! For one never knows how resilient these "dependent" partners, jobs, projects or teams may turn out to be once the empathetic person really dares to take the big step of leaving. But that may never happen, as empathetic people keep ciphering themselves away and keep prioritizing the needs of those who are actually the more successful ones: the ones that know how to express their need in order to keep the empathetic soul paralyzed.

So, what can we learn from this? Perhaps the following: empathy is a virtue, but like any other virtue, it should be applied with appropriate moderation. For too much understanding and empathizing may lead to personal unhappiness for the sake of the well being of others.