The difference between healthy empathy and martyrdom

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:

    1. Emotion Contagion
    2. Empathic Accuracy
    3. Emotion Regulation
    4. Perspective Taking
    5. Concern for Others
    6. Perceptive Engagement

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.

But I have to be honest with you. You can perform effectively as an empath if you’re self-abandoning, and even if you’re filled with self-loathing.

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

Dancing girlI 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.


16 Responses

  1. Carey
    | Reply

    Hello, Karla.

    I am listening to Joan Halifax talk about SORROW as being the near enemy of compassion. Immediately I think…uh oh….an emotion being vilified by a religion. Because this is not her personal opinion, but a buddhist teaching,right, about near enemies to virtues. And I don’t know a lot about the teaching yet, but I feel this kind of challenge to groundedness as soon as there is a suggestion that a feeling – sorrow – is actually an enemy to being good, to practicing a virtue.

    Perhaps it is more of a clumsier way of trying to point out the possible reality of unhealthy empathy. I find though this clumsiness to be a kind of threat to my beginner’s efforts at listening to and honoring emotion as a language with it’s own value. Can you speak perhaps to the kind of aloneness or pioneer spirit that seems to be necessary to live the idea that emotions may be welcome and worth listening to and honoring versus a thing to be judged and feared and to cut ourselves away from or at minimum to have the right opinion/understanding of to be “virtuous”?

    I find the more I sink into really seeing the emotions as an equal part of the whole that all of the places I see (meditation groups, church, social groups) do not allow for this and any sense of belonging is gone. Where are people who share this belief in a group to be able to share the discovery and practice with instead of always feeling a sense of “not belonging” to any organized groups or religions? It feels like the embracing of emotion as a valid language to be honored means the loss of all social belonging, shared values with any groups of people.

    Why is sorrow the enemy of compassion? If you are able to share a bit on your messages from sorrow and compassion as well as what feel challenges, something of a “lone” journey aspect, to the wonderful learning you inspire at your convenience would be helpful.

    Thank you, Karla for changing how it is possible to hear Life, to be alive.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Carey and welcome. I share your sense of displacement from most of the conventional world, and from most social groups. I used to joke about myself in relation to social groups that sure, I was a team player — Team Captain!

      But it’s not really a joke. I find that my social and emotional needs are unique, and that if I want to be in groups, I have to either create them, or choose them with extreme care. It is very difficult to be a highly empathic and emotionally aware person in an emotionally unaware world.

      This group you are looking for; I’m working to create it online, but I have to finish my thesis first. I’ll be creating online learning groups where people will be able to gather together in social learning groups predicated on an awareness of emotions, an understanding of the true dimensions of empathy, and a willingness to learn how to be in communication not just with each other, but with their own emotions, thoughts, ideas, and contradictions. If you’re on the newsletter list, I’ll be writing about the plans for it this month.

      Oh, compassion and sorrow. I would actually challenge this outdated idea in the strongest way, because a person who has not been tempered by sorrow — and who cannot skillfully match the energy of a person who is in sorrow, would have very little functional skill with compassion.

      You are right that most spiritual traditions make emotions into pathology, but a bit of sociological awareness always helps me in these cases. Nearly all spiritual traditions were created before the modern era and before scientific inquiry, social justice awareness, disability rights awareness, and awareness of all kinds. These traditions created proxies for the knowledge that was so sorely lacking, and they represent some of the most beautiful ideas humankind has developed, and also some of the most devastating.

      A recent example: I was listening to a Christmas carol by the genius a capella group Pentatonix this week, “Mary Did You Know?” Their arrangement is exquisite and beautiful, but the lyrics of the song are deeply troubling.

      It’s a celebration of the son of God being born to Mary, and the song asks her if she knew who her son would become, and what he would do. In the song, the promise is that “the blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again, the lame will leap, the dumb will speak …” If you want to hear it, it’s here.

      As a disability rights advocate, those lyrics were both painful to hear and also very revealing about the underlying ideas most people unconsciously hold about the value of disabled people — and that thinking infects so much of our ideology about illness and disability. It infects research, education, treatment, social services — everything.

      I’ve been thinking about it very deeply, as I’ve also been studying data on parents murdering their disabled children — many of whom openly stated that they hoped the children they killed would become cured in heaven. Ideas have power, and this idea that holiness erases all of the normal illnesses and disabilities that all living things experience was clearly a wish that many people shared, and which formed a central part of their traditions. But it’s a wish with very nightmarish consequences.

      It is also striking to realize that the members of Pentatonix: A Latina woman, two gay men, a Jewish man, and an African American man, belong to groups that have been or are currently being excluded from (or demonized by) the Christian religious traditions from which this song springs. On the YouTube comments (of course, cesspool that Youtube can be) someone is calling out one of the gay men and saying that he’s not allowed to sing Christian songs. Honey, Jesus wept.

      As hyper-empaths and as social justice workers, we need to surround ourselves with people who can understand the struggles we see, and who can support us in the specific ways we are working to challenge traditions — emotional, social, spiritual, etc. — that seemed like a very good idea at the time, but now need to be sharply called out and brought into the light of the new day.

      Justice is not a destination, however. It’s a journey, and a prayer, and a dedication to the soul of the world. Thank you for your enduring dedication to emotional awareness, empathy, and justice.

      • Camilla Jorgensen
        | Reply

        Thank you for your question, Carey, on sorrow and compassion and thank you Karla, for your reply on this and on the fact that many spiritual traditions make emotions into pathology.

        I also appreciate this point:
        “….we are working to challenge traditions — emotional, social, spiritual, etc. — that seemed like a very good idea at the time, but now need to be sharply called out and brought into the light of the new day.”

        It´s helping me clear up some of the outdated ideas I was brought up with.

        • Karla
          | Reply

          Thank you Camilla!

  2. Cheryl
    | Reply

    Thank you so much for this post. It explains so much to me about myself. I have been very good at giving my care to others but never to myself…until very recently. I have even thought that I must not have really ever done a good job in my profession (health care) since I didn’t love myself. I was one of those people you describe as having my lifeblood drained out of me for years and years. Self abandoning is exactly it and It’s still happening. I look forward to your online support group idea because I sure need it.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thanks Cheryl, and thanks for the work you do. You’re not alone in empathic burnout!

      My husband Tino is a hospice nurse, and he and I are working on a new training for the healthcare community, called Healthy Empathy.

      We should have our first workshops and materials ready later this year.

  3. Angie Pennington
    | Reply

    I am so thrilled that I found your site! I am new to the realization of being an empath and feel compelled to learn as much as I can. This concept has opened the door to understanding myself better and replacing the title “too sensitive” given by myself and others!

    This article has helped me greatly. In light of the 2016 elections I have been overwhelmed with emotions, especially the Anger Emotion. I care about people very much and can’t stand to hear of people being mistreated or living in fear. My empathy is so strong right now that I’m finding it hard to care for myself and to even allow myself to feel happiness when so many people are hurting. I am going to try and take you advice to “put on my oxygen mask first”. I have been trying to rest more, meditate & spend more quality time with the family. I just still feel like I need permission to relax and feel joy. I am generally a positive person but I feel like I’m stuck in intense warrior mode.

    I have been doing everything I can to take action, I have joined many clubs online (ACLU, Human Rights Campaign, Black Lives Matter, ADL, etc) and would protect someone who was being mistreated in a heartbeat. I’m not sure what else I can do to help and to insure that I will never become complacent again. Do you ever feel this way? Any other tips? Thank you for the tremendous work you do! Love, Angie

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Angie, and welcome!

      Yes, self-care is going to be the critical defining feature of the people who can continue to protect the vulnerable and work for social justice for years to come! Good on you for prioritizing it.

      In our family, we’ve shifted our charitable giving to ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center (excellent, go check them out!), Planned Parenthood, and the NAACP. What we’re looking for is stable organizations that have been around for decades, have the infrastructure and the political clout to get things done, and have long experience. Then we become supporting members.

      Right now, I’m looking for something international, because I’m sure this change doesn’t bode well for other countries. There’s Amnesty International, but that’s for after a disaster. Doctors Without Borders too. I’m checking with my friend in the Foreign Service to see what’s best.

      I’m also looking at organizations related to public schools, because vouchers have been shown to reduce educational quality and increase inequality.

      Finally, the Fourth Estate is going to be crucial in the years to come, and good journalism has to be supported. I just subscribed to the Washington Post and the NY Times (I already belong to NPR), and I’m looking at other regional papers to see who still has the staff to cover deep stories. I’m thinking about Chicago, and possibly the LA Times. My local paper, the SF Chronicle, is a mess.

      Our work will be to prepare, gather together, resist injustice, resist hate from others and toward others, and bring together the thing that actually makes America great, which is its people. This is going to be hard, and there’s trouble ahead, but we’ll get through it if we work smart and work together.

      Onward and forward!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *