Balancing empathy for others with empathy for yourself
When I talk about empathy, I tend to use the words healthy and intentional a great deal of the time. If your empathy is unintentional, and you’re not sure how it works, it can be very easy to enmesh yourself with other people’s emotions and needs — to the extent that you ignore your own. You can lose track of yourself if you’re highly empathic and you don’t have your skills under you yet.
If your empathy is unintentional and unhealthy, you can lose track of yourself and your needs, certainly, but you may also focus so intensely on others that you approach a kind of martyrdom (where you make yourself entirely responsible for the welfare of others). I see this type of martyrdom/empathy in hyper-empathic people who haven’t yet learned how to manage their empathy, and who haven’t yet realized that they have choices.
The good news is that you can learn healthy empathic skills at any age, and you can become intentional, skillful, and comfortable with your empathy. Whew.
When I created my Six Essential Aspects of Empathy, I focused on how empathy builds, from the basic awareness of Emotion Contagion to the culminating act of Perceptive Engagement. But I also intentionally left something out:
This missing aspect might be called self-care, self-love, self-empathy, or something along those lines, and I’d probably pour it like a sauce over all six aspects. Because, to be a happy, healthy, and effective empath, you’ve got to take care of yourself first – in essence, you’ve got to be able to put on your own oxygen mask before you help other passengers with theirs.
Developing and nurturing empathy for yourself is what The Art of Empathy is about. I want to help you develop self-awareness, self-care, self-love, and healthy relationships as central features of your life. These are absolutely vital things.
Martyrdom and empathic burnout are central reasons why empathy can be so difficult – and why it can be in such short supply.
Some of the most amazing and hugely empathic social justice workers the world has ever known have been self-abandoning people who were running from the deep trouble in their own souls. Their homes, their love lives, and their family lives were often chaotic or nonexistent. The process of empathizing skillfully does not require that you take good care of yourself.
Of course, you’ll burn out if you don’t take care of yourself, and your empathic work won’t be social activism as much as it is martyrdom. But you can empathize pretty effectively even if you have very little empathy for yourself. In fact, most of us have performed skillful empathy from a self-abandoning position – and many burnt-out empaths have turned away from empathy precisely because it can lead to martyrdom.
And this is a central reason why empathy is such a difficult subject – and why it can be in such short supply. To be good at empathy, especially in the Perspective Taking, Concern for Others, and Perceptive Engagement aspects, empathy is about the other. It’s not about you.
If you’ve got a healthy inner life, healthy relationships, and clear-eyed emotional awareness, empathy can be fun and engaging and delightful – especially when it’s not about you. You can learn so much when you empathize, and particularly when you empathize with people who are nothing like you.
However, if your emotional life is uncomfortable, if your relationships aren’t supportive, if your workplace is demanding extensive emotion work from you, or if your self-care is negligible, empathy can sort of drain the lifeblood out of you. Even so, you’ll still be able to empathize, because it’s an innate skill that develops naturally in early childhood – and it’s a skill we all possess to some degree.
So as you move forward to build skills, awareness, support, and multiple foundations under and around your empathic abilities, your experience of empathy will become healthier, more intentional, and more fun. However, it’s important to remember that even on your worst day, you’re already an empath and these six essential aspects are already a part of your life. The Art of Empathy is about making sure that your innate empathy is an intentional, healthy, and workable part of your whole life.
Bringing it all together
I separated empathy into six discrete (but interrelated) aspects because I want you to understand empathy as a process that is accessible and malleable – so that if you have trouble with empathy, you’ll be able to zero in on your specific area of concern.
With the foundation of these six essential aspects of empathy, you can move forward into a deeper engagement with the process of becoming an accurate, emotionally well-regulated, self-aware, self-respecting, perceptive, happy, and healthy empath. And I’m telling you, it’s not only possible to do this; it’s actually achievable.
If your empathy has been more like martyrdom than activism, and even if you developed empathic burnout a long time ago, empathy is an innate feature of human nature and human intelligence, and you can retrieve it. There are new ways to think about empathy, new ways to experience it, and new ways to support and empathize with others that will work for both of you. That’s the art of empathy.