6 Ways Big-Hearted Women Misplace Our Empathy — And Suffer For It In The End

There's a difference between beneficial empathy and the kind that will sabotage you.

girl comforting sad friend Xavier Lorenzo / Shutterstock 

One of the most wonderful experiences is receiving empathy from someone who truly cares.

When someone connects empathetically, imagines what you feel and need, and communicates with kindness, those words of empathy heal your pain. When you are giving empathy to someone else, this skill is the most powerful way to create a deep and authentic connection. This is the fastest route to friendship, and intimacy — and it's incredibly authentic.


Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D., founder of the Center for Nonviolent Communication and one of my teachers, taught that there is a small percentage of each culture, ethnicity, and religion that is naturally compassionate. The rest of us need to learn how to offer empathy that calms and heals people who are in emotional pain, without exhausting ourselves.

It's that phrase "without exhausting ourselves" that is often overlooked by people who give too much, or who misplace their empathy.

In this article written by Richard Fisher for The BBC, “Can empathy be bad for you?”, the answer is that it is potentially damaging if we miss these important differences between beneficial empathy and misplaced empathy.


“A final downside of empathy is its sometimes-incapacitating emotional impact. The philosopher Susanne Langer once called empathy an ‘involuntary breach of individual separateness’ and this seems to apply particularly when we observe someone suffering, such as a loved one. Brain scan studies by neuroscientist Tania Singer of the Max Planck Society in Germany have shown that when people watched others in pain, their brain activity in the regions associated with pain was partially mirrored. This may be an evolutionary adaptation to help us predict, and avoid, how pain would affect us.”

RELATED: 5 Warning Signs You're Falling For Someone Who Lacks Empathy

Here are six signs your empathy is misplaced 

Remember that misplaced empathy requires as much time and effort as beneficial empathy does but produces no positive results because you aren’t connecting to the other person’s actual needs.   

1. You forget to self-soothe.

Before focusing on someone in pain and instead of projecting onto someone else, we must have the ability to first self-soothe until we feel peaceful. Only then will we be able to truly be compassionate.


2. You forget to be authentic and check your own emotional state.

You may be on “auto-pilot” and unable to connect with your own feelings and emotions.

3. You put someone else’s needs ahead of your own time and again.

You will find that the love and healthy empathy you once felt for a friend is depleted until any expression of care disappears. Most of us recognize this as co-dependence and it never works.

RELATED: The Cry-It-Out Plan That Helps Adults Heal Past Trauma

4. You forget to triage.

Separate those people who deserve your loving kindness from those who do not. Then clarify the situations that are truly critical from those that are just drama. If your friend keeps playing their invisible violin sweetly disconnect.  


5. You wish you had a lot more skills, but you don’t. 

As a life coach and mediator, I have helped many families transform addiction and suicidal ideation for 24 years. However, most people do not have that training, so avoid jumping into a “shark-filled pool” when the best option is contacting a skilled professional.

6. You enjoy playing ‘therapist’ or ‘AA Sponsor’.

Another example of what not to do becomes obvious if you know someone who is constantly giving empathy, like a pretend therapist, because he/she/they feel miserable and love talking about emotional pain and suffering. Since beneficial empathy means that we are guessing the other person’s feelings and unmet needs, it is never about projecting our own emotional state or unhappiness onto someone else.

Four ways to prioritize empathy that truly makes a difference

1. Never forget “Empathy before Education”.

Marshall Rosenberg’s famous instructions are essential if you want to provide empathy to someone in pain. Remember that they can’t even hear you if misery is overwhelming them and they certainly can’t take an idea and act on it.  

2. Avoid involvement in someone’s medical emergencies. 

Unless you are a health care expert— even if you’re someone’s medical emergency contact— don’t feel tempted to solve the problem without professional support. Then after calling 911 or their doctor, you can empathize with their fear because they need to feel healthy again.


3. Stop giving advice to the ‘lovelorn’.

This is my pet peeve because as a successful coach and mediator who has taught thousands of individuals and couples how to transform their relationships, I am amazed by the medical doctors, attorneys, and financial advisors who tell my clients what to do about their marriage or partner. When you “Stay in your Lane” you’ll remember to empathize and not try to fix.

4. Avoid giving involved in someone else's financial crisis.

Consider the best way to offer empathy because this is a survival issue for many. You may need to pretend you have laryngitis because it can be so tempting to tell someone what you did to solve a financial issue but first, be sure to listen. It is only when we carefully listen to someone’s feelings and needs that we can select any suggestions that may actually help them. 

Don’t get sucked into their story because if you stay present, your own joy can be contagious, so use it. When you feel happy and peaceful, you can authentically connect with someone else, and your own higher vibe will help raise their spirits even before you speak.  

RELATED: 5 Skills That Shift Angry Ex-Lovers To Close, Loving Friends


How to offer beneficial empathy without making yourself suffer:

Before you can offer any form of empathy, you have to first learn the skill. Many people confuse sympathy with empathy. When we offer empathy, we connect with compassion and do our best to feel what we imagine the other person is experiencing at that moment. Next, we express the needs that they have that are not met in the current situation.

A. Beneficial empathy after a breakup:

“Jane, when I heard that John broke up with you last week, I’m guessing that you felt shocked because you have been happy with him for the last few months, yes?”

After Jane replies, the 2nd example of empathy may be “I can hear how furious you felt when you learned he was cheating because you need and deserve honesty, right?”

After Jane replies, ad 3rd example of empathy may be “I understand that you’re feeling so sad right now and you really need some peace, yes?”


When we offer this authentic empathy from our own open heart to their heart, even though we aren’t fixing the problem, they begin to feel better and better.

B. Beneficial empathy example after a job loss:

“Linda, I just learned you won’t be staying at the company, and I imagine that you’re feeling surprised because you’ve worked so hard and brought in so much business and expected job security, right?   

After Linda replies, you may continue with Empathy:


“Yes, I understand that you feel furious because you deserve respect and appreciation, yes?”

Giving others the gift of empathy can help them heal

When you offer empathy to someone, and you have the skills to guess their feelings and unmet needs, they will calm down. Even people who have chosen the role of victim rather than learning to improve their lives will become more peaceful and more present. In this way, they heal, and you avoid the emotional exhaustion of misplaced empathy. 

RELATED: 15 Signs You're A Better Person Than You Think You Are

Susan Allan is a certified mediator and coach and the founder of the Marriage Forum Inc and creator of The 6 Part Conversation and The 7 Stages of Marriage and Divorce training to help people understand their own needs and their partners.