The Problem with Empathy – Shelle’s Top Tips

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What’s the problem with empathy?” you might say. “Empathy is a good thing.” Sometimes too much empathy can reinforce a person’s belief in their issues and create or affirm a problem that that he or she is having, which can leave him or her in a negative, stuck state.

I was in a three-way conversation recently with someone who is going through a very messy divorce, and she was telling her story while the two of us listened intently.  The other person who was listening said, Oh”, with a distressed tone of voice, “how’s it going?” (You may need to watch the video at www.shellestoptips.com to see the role voice tone and body language played in this conversation.) She made a lot of little noises and accompaniments: “Oh, that must be difficult”, and appeared to be really living through the difficult experience with the other friend who is having the divorce.

The more empathy she showed, and I was watching the other person, the more depressed-looking the divorcée became. I thought, “I have to do something!”

When I first came back to Canada from France, I got out of my marriage with two babies and just two suitcases. I had to restart a life on my own again, which was difficult. Some people were extremely empathetic. They would say, “Gee, it’s got to be hard to raise two kids on your own and look for a job and everything else.” And I would think to myself, “If I choose to believe what you’re offering me, it will be really hard to get out of bed each day. Every day is going to feel like a big struggle.”

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I had to reframe what they said, just to protect myself and so I got into the habit of saying, “Being a single parent is actually a lot easier than living with a drunk. So it’s a big improvement.”

The lesson is: Be very careful about what you empathize with because too much empathy can make people feel bad.

I had another friend, when I went through breast cancer treatment, who used to say, “Gee, how difficult is that whole thing? If you ever want to cry on someone’s shoulders, I’m your person.” And I thought, “I don’t want to cry anymore. I want someone to cheer me up.”  Check out my article called: Ten Tips for Surviving the Health Care System for helping people with health issues.

Try this for a while. If someone speaks to you about a problem, why not cheer them up instead of empathizing with all the difficulties? You could say: “Gee, I bet you’re looking forward to the end of that!” or “I bet you don’t want to stay there too long.” Change your tone a little bit.

The rule of thumb that I have is:   

Be close to the person but keep your distance from his or her problem.

If you get inside the problem with them and live it with them, you reinforce all the negativity around the problem.

Someone approached me and asked me for some coaching and said that she was stuck. I could have said, “Gee, that’s got to be difficult to feel stuck,” but I didn’t want to do that. What I said was, “Oh, I bet you don’t want stay feeling like that for long, when you don’t have to.” And she agreed with me. She said, “That’s right,” and I watched her perk up immediately.

Watch the impact of what you say, because as soon as you say something, you will see and hear how the person responds. Do you push them down and make them feel worse or build them up? So I invite you to pay attention to what you say and don’t be too empathetic.

If you are interested in booking me (Shelle Rose Charvet) for a presentation, keynote or workshop contact me at [email protected]. Please visit my speaking page, too.”

2 thoughts on “The Problem with Empathy – Shelle’s Top Tips

  1. AC

    Thank you for sharing this! I have made this mistake before and seen that my over-empathy has made others feel worse. Your explanation will help me to respond more helpfully in the future when friends come to me when going through a tough time. Thanks again!

    Reply
  2. Hoda Lacey

    Shelle, once again I was really taken with your video. I have learnt to my cost that over empathy can reinforce either negativity, helplessness. or other unhelpful emotions. It’s difficult to maintain the balance and I liked your helpful phrases.

    At a time when I am unsubscribing from many blogs and emails, yours is one I wouldn’t miss.

    Thank you and warm regards

    Hoda

    Reply

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