5 Ways Being An Empathetic Person Can Actually HURT You

Photo: weheartit
Being An Empathetic Person

After hearing how someone I know is struggling or going through a really stressful time, I can feel a knot start to form in my stomach. My heartbeat quickens and pounds within my chest to the point where I feel like I'm suffocating. I'm overwhelmed by feelings of despair and powerlessness, all caused by the very character trait that I'm told is an endearing quality — empathy.

There's no doubt that if you asked my closest friends, empathetic would be the first adjective they used to describe me. It's an integral part of my spirituality. Mahatma Ghandi said, "I call him religious who understands the suffering of others." And I do understand the suffering of others more than I can stand sometimes.

Empathy awakens compassion in people. It's supposed to be a gift and an honorable character trait. But it wasn't until recently that I started to see the harm this "gift" can cause if you don't know how to turn it on and turn it off.

Here are five ways being empathetic can actually hurt you:

1. You lose yourself in dating.

It's important to care about the feelings of the person you're dating, but it's problematic if you care more about the other person's feelings than your own well-being.

Empathetic people can sometimes become co-dependents and lose themselves in relationships. They often become consumed with the desire to solve the other person's problems and meet every need, neglecting their own feelings and needs in the process.

2. You feel obligated to help others.

Recently, my husband and I encountered a woman through our church who was mentally unwell. On the way out, she asked us if we could give her a ride home because she had a phobia of the subway. I was stuck for a second; but after years of practicing putting boundaries in place, I was able to communicate that we were unable to help because we had prior commitments.

Once I got home, she called my phone multiple times explaining that no taxis would stop for her and she was going to have to sleep on the street if she couldn't find a way home. She sounded frantic. I felt terrible and at a loss for what to do.

I got off the phone with her and texted her my apologies for not being able to help. I wished her the best of luck and "turned off" my empathy. I realized it was unsafe and unrealistic for me to do anything in this situation. She texted me twenty minutes later that she took a bus home.

Sometimes, you just have to turn away and let people deal with things on their own. They found a way to function and survive before they met you, and they'll find a way to continue after.

3. You may become distracted by the struggles of your coworkers.

Work can be another challenging place for the over-empathetic. Empathy will have you focus on the struggles of the people that work for you and with you, rather than the quality and efficiency of their work.  

Everyone has a bad day and everyone has troubles, but that doesn't justify not doing what we're being paid to do all the time. You can have an off day, maybe even an off year, but when does it end? Especially when you work with people who are also affected by your negligence.

Whether a co-worker or an employee, ignoring inefficiency in a work setting is harmful. It may draw into question your ability to manage and supervise, or it may make you look just as inefficient by association.

4. You unintentionally enable family and friends.

I grew up with an aunt who was very different from her siblings. Since her teenage years, it's been one bad decision after another. She has four children, is in very bad health, and is currently in a relationship with a man who "used to" physically abuse her. It breaks my heart.

You know that cliché saying, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." As a family, we've given her more than just two chances. Time after time, she's called for help with mediating family scenarios, some kind of co-sign, and more often than not "loans" that she never pays back.

If we don't shut our empathy off, we're only enabling her to continue to make bad decisions. The very emotion that's meant to stir compassion and love can be detrimental when it allows her to further her destructive behavior. It's a fine line between empathy and enabling.

5. You put strains on your romantic relationships and friendships.

I cannot begin to tell you how many times my empathy for others has caused strain in my marriage. I feel so much for others that I inconvenience myself and my husband to try and accommodate or alleviate their struggles. It's a dangerous line to tight rope.

It's dangerous to care and feel so much for others that you completely forget about your partner or friends in the process. My husband and I both took the 5 Love Languages quiz and I discovered that his number one way of receiving love is quality time. I now make sure that before I make plans or venture into another one of my compassion missions, that I've given him the quality time he needs and deserves as my best friend.

When empathy is activated, you become like a human colander for other people's problems and if you're not careful, all the heavy stuff stays with you. 

Balance is key. It's not an easy task and I continue to struggle with it daily, but I've learned the importance of setting personal boundaries, nurturing healthy relationships, and having a sense of well-being  all while still being true to who I am.